Saturday, July 6, 2024

#2,963. Times Square (1980) - New York State of Mind


Times Square has an energy to it that is all-consuming.

A lot of said energy can be attributed to the music. This 1980 movie was produced by Robert Stigwood, the man behind Saturday Night Fever and Grease, two films with soundtrack LPs that sold millions. Featuring songs by The Ramones, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and a slew of others (including a couple of original tunes written for the movie and performed by its young stars), Times Square is packed with tons of great music.

But the music is far from the film’s only charm. The two leads, a pair of teenage girls played to perfection by literal newcomers, are the glue that holds the whole thing together. We like them the moment we meet them, and like them more and more with each passing scene.

Pamela (Trini Alvarado), a shy, awkward 13-year-old, is the daughter of New York commissioner David Pearl (Peter Coffield), who has made it his mission to clean up Times Square by driving away the smut peddlers and closing the XXX theaters. Clueless as to why Pamela is so troubled, her father sends her to a Neurological hospital, where they will run tests to determine whether or not there is something wrong with her mind.

Pamela’s roommate at the facility is Nicky Marotta (Robin Johnson), a punk-rock street urchin with a criminal record, who is set to undergo the very same tests. A free spirit, Nicky has no intention of sticking around, and talks Pamela into running away with her. Thus begins an amazing adventure, with Nicky and Pamela doing whatever it takes to survive on the streets and, along the way, becoming the best of friends.

When radio DJ Johnny LaGuardia (Tim Curry) catches wind of their story, he single-handedly transforms Nicky and Pamela into local celebrities by reporting on their exploits. But with Pamela’s dad and the cops searching frantically for them, it’s anyone’s guess how long this taste of freedom the two are enjoying will last.

Trini Alvarado is wonderful as the introverted Pamela, whose transformation from a lonely, troubled girl into an assertive, outgoing young woman is the heart of this movie. With Nicky’s help, Pamela even lands a job as a waitress at a seedy nightclub, somehow convincing the owner that she’s 18 years old.

Yet the true marvel that is Times Square is the performance of Robin Johnson as Nicky (unlike Alvarado, who had a handful of credits to her name prior to this film, Johnson was making her screen debut). The moment she struts on-screen during the opening credits, walking the streets of New York with her boombox, Johnson’s Nicky oozes confidence. She is angry, and often lashes out at authority. Naturally, this gets her into plenty of trouble, and what makes Times Square such an endearing movie is that, as much as Nicky helps Pamela come out of her shell, Pamela also has a positive effect on Nicky, convincing her to finally pursue her dream of becoming a punk rock star. Watching these two interact throughout the film was magic, and I did not want their story to end.

The relationship between Nicky and Pamela is front and center throughout Times Square, but the supporting characters aren’t left out to dry. Tim Curry is smooth and slightly enigmatic as the DJ who dedicates airtime to the exploits of Nicky and Pamela, going so far as to broadcast, on live radio, a song performed by the two (a hard-hitting number titled “Your Daughter is One”). As played by Curry, we’re never quite sure about Johnny. Is he a renegade inspired by the two girls, or an opportunist using them to make a name for himself? Even Pamela’s father isn’t a one-note character; though ignorant and career-oriented in the early scenes, he becomes truly concerned for his daughter’s safety, and goes so far as to promise to resign if she would just come home.

Times Square is not a perfect film. It’s occasionally choppy, and the flow is a little disjointed (Allan Moyle said that some key scenes, including hints of a lesbian relationship between the two leads, were cut by Stigwood, who, according to the director, seemed more interested in overloading the film’s music soundtrack than in making a cohesive movie). There are also twists and turns in the story that are unrealistic, from Pamela working at a topless night club (she herself refused to take her clothes off, winning the respect of the club’s manager) to the girls performing a song on live radio (“Your Daughter is One” is loaded with profanity as well as ethnic and homophobic slurs. Johnny would have been fired by his station manager on the spot for letting it go out).

To be honest, though, its lack of realism didn’t bother me at all. The story of Nicky and Pamela is the stuff of legend, the kind of tale told over and over, for generations, until the line between fact and fiction is blurred or even erased. DJ Johnny LaGuardia turned the girls into New York folk heroes. It’s no wonder the movie itself sought to do the same.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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