“It’s like a mix between UHF and Be Kind Rewind,” says one amateur critic on The Facebook. Oh, those amateurs! Still, I can see the comparison: Tapeheads is at times demented, at other times inventive. We follow failed security guards Josh and Ivan (Tim Robbins and John Cusack, respectively) as they try to determine what to do with their lives, eventually riding on Josh’s almost preternatural knack for putting together artistic, off-beat, and commercially viable music videos out of pretty much any images he’s given. Things get increasingly bizarre as the team gains more and more popularity. It reminded me more of Martin Scorsese’s magnificent black comedy After Hours, in the way that everybody keeps a straight face despite how off-the-wall things may become.
First, let’s talk about the actors. John Cusack, well, there’s not really anything I need to say about him, is there? He wears a pencil-thin mustache and business suit – with sunglasses! – throughout the majority of the film, a fast-talking man with a head for the mechanics of the music biz. Or else he makes it appear that way, which is what it’s all really about, isn’t it? When the pair hooks up with music producer Mo Fuzz (Don Cornelius), he seems extremely suspicious, but I think that’s about it – he just seems suspicious, constantly, and kind of menacing without really any reason for seeming so. As for Tim Robbins, he’s geeky as ever but strangely laidback about it. The Napoleon Dynamite comparison jumps out immediately, but Robbins’ character is much less annoying about it. He’s comfortable in his geekiness, secure, without Dynamite’s misguided belief that he is somehow more macho than it seems.
It’s true that there’s an over-riding plot involving scheming political maneuvers and back-stabbing, but what makes the movie work is in the bizarrely perfect music videos that Josh and Ivan (who dub themselves ‘Video Aces’) actually end up producing, from a fast-food restaurant which turns a Colonel Sanders-type into a rap-rocking beast, to an Swedish ’80s synth-hair band being covered in bright paint, each of the videos represented turns into some kind of off-kilter work of genius, the sort of thing that would make stars out of OK Go and Matt & Kim decades later. It doesn’t hurt that the music is pretty fantastic itself, with a soundtrack including Devo, They Might Be Giants, Fishbone, and ’60s group Sam & Dave. And adding to this is the fact that the film really takes the art of filmmaking seriously. When a cheap commercial comes on television and Ivan derides it as being crap, their friend Belinda defends the locally produced tv spot, praising it for being “evocative without being expensive.” Later, Josh hilariously prevents Ivan from yelling at an old man, telling him, “You can’t talk to actors like that!” He then proceeds to speak soothingly to the man, stroking his ego while requesting a more charismatic performance. It’s not all talk, either. Watch the camera switch suddenly to a POV first-person shot as it jerks along following two low-life characters at a party, see a security camera checker-board fade into the next shot, and so on. As Tapeheads was released at the tail end of the ’80s, it can be hard to read: is the movie making light of that brief moment in pop culture, embracing it, or some combination of the two?
I tend to think that it’s the latter option, just because I want to give the film and its creators the benefit of the doubt and grant them some sort of prescience. Could first-time director Bill Fishman really have known in 1988 how berserk it would be to have a blooping and bleeping sound on the soundtrack while a the trigger of a monstrous firearm is being pulled? Where is the line between what’s supposed to be a joke and what is supposed to be taken seriously? When Ivan and Josh talk passionately about their love of ’60s soul group The Swanky Modes, there’s certainly some amount of honesty in that – perhaps it’s even mostly honesty. The character idolize the band, so much so that they feel compelled to save the long-forgotten group from the annals of history and set about to bring them back into the spotlight. Yes, all while fighting the corruption of a U.S. senatorial candidate with a fetish for submissive role play in the bedroom. But to get back to the point at hand, it’s hard to deny that Sam & Dave (the guys playing the Swanky Modes) are legends, Rock & Roll Hall-of-Famers who spat out 10 consecutive Top 20 singles in a three-year period. But how much of the film is a sly nudge-nudge-wink-wink joke because it’s hi-larious, somehow, to have these geeky twenty-somethings obsess over a soul group from decades past. It reminds me of the jokes in Saving Silverman at the expense of Neil Diamond, who is actually amazing – jokes which, again, must stem from some genuine respect for the artist but end up playing more as a “wouldn’t it be funny if..” that doesn’t always work. Or how about Pineapple Express closing on Huey Lewis’ rollicking song of the same title? How much is sincere appreciation for the song, versus tongue-in-cheek uncoolness posing as clever. Lewis made it clear, I guess, when he said that it has become hip to exist as a square.
Maybe it’s wrong to think so much about where to draw dividing lines and trying to find deeper ideas about irony from back before irony was a thing. Actually, was irony ever not a thing? Perhaps it’s best to just sit back and enjoy the zaniness, to revel in the freaky artistry and just enjoy seeing strange bit parts played by Jessica Walters (“Arrested Development”, “Archer”) and Ebbe Roe Smith (the guy who wrote Falling Down), as well as brief cameos from “Weird” Al Yankovic, Michael Nesmith, Jello Biafra, Ted Nugent, Courtney Love, and even director Bobcat Goldthwait. Maybe it’s best to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.