You might not know this from all my snooty, high-minded adoration of Ozu and Renoir, but there are few movies that fill me with as much joy and excitement as the 1979 disco roller skating train wreck that is Roller Boogie. It’s hard to explain why I love this movie so much, especially to people who haven’t seen it – or maybe especially to people to have seen it. It is so utterly incompetent on all levels that it should be taking its place alongside Zardoz and The Sting Part II as one of my most painful cinematic experiences, but like Brooks’ Springtime for Hitler (the unofficial measure for this series on bad movies I love), it stumbles into entertainment.
Trying to cash in on the roller skating/disco craze of the late 1970s, Roller Boogie purports to tell the story of Terri, a spoiled rich girl played by a grown up Linda Blair, who hires Venice Beach skating pro(?) Bobby (Jim Bray) to teach her how to boogie on wheels. It’s the typical rich girl falling for the rough guy from the wrong side of the tracks (or in this case, the wrong side of the 405) story, but Jim Bray’s wiry frame and high-pitched whiny voice make him about as threatening as blind toddler.
Director Mark Lester and screenwriter Barry Schneider shoehorn in some nonsense about a powerful businessman trying to strong arm the owner of the beloved local skating rink into selling, a concert recital (Terri plays the flute – remember, she’s classy!), and, of course, a big disco skating competition that’s about as climatic or interesting as Andy Warhol’s Empire. (OK, maybe it’s slightly more interesting than watching the Empire State Building do nothing for eight hours, but not by much.)
These are just narrative gimmicks in place to push the characters from one poorly written, amateurishly directed, and badly acted scene to another. There are times when you might be tempted to guess that some of the scenes are from completely different movies that just happened to have the same actors, like some jaw-droppingly bad slapstick. Of course the bad slapstick turns out to be hilarious for not being funny. Here’s a rule: It’s never funny when someone, always fully clothed, gets pulled into a pool while trying to help out some dope without enough sense to just grab the edge and make his way over to the shallow end. Despite this rule – one of the few I would consider set in stone for movies – Lester chooses to use it not once, not twice, not even three times. There is something like six or seven times poor extras are forced to pretend they have the equilibrium of a three-year-old. You can’t help but laugh at the dopiness.
And what’s with the “romance” between Linda Blair and Jim Bray (who, by the way, was a real life pro roller skater, not an actor and it shows). Every time they play a romantic scene I was thrown into an incomprehensible mind-twisting paradox: I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that they both could have done better. (Unravel that one.)
When Roller Boogie was finally released the critics uniformly panned it – rightly so – but that never stopped a movie from making oodles of money. The producers, however, overestimated the box office draw of Linda Blair and Jim Bray, and miscalculated the staying power of the roller disco craze, which petered out before the movie was released. So it was a flop all around.
Luckily it found a new life on DVD and, oddly enough, occasional showings late at night on TCM. Everyone I know who has seen it tells me how bad it is, then goes on to tell me what a great time they had watching it. There is a transcendent quality to its badness that dips into cinematic ecstasy. There is nothing more enjoyable than being up late at night, turning off my phone, locking the doors, shutting the curtains, making sure the neighbors are without suspicion and turning on Roller Boogie again. I always thought no one would know – until now. I’ve come clean. I love Roller Boogie (and Oingo Boingo apparently).
And in response to the old query about being stranded on a desert island and I could only have one movie with me, it would not be this one. But, if I could take ten or twenty, Roller Boogie would certainly be in the running. I can’t imagine life without Jammer, Gordo, Phones, Hoppy, the stock snob Franklin, or the fat beach cop Sgt. Danner, in his disturbingly little shorts and store-bought white t-shirt with LAPD ironed on. Plus it’s hard to dismiss anything with Beverly Garland in it. It’s the little things like this that make Roller Boogie a piece of crap to cherish.