Rocky Horror Picture Show is a strange masterpiece. But can you improve on a masterpiece, particularly one that is such a product of its time? Can you update its themes, can you extract its meaning and polish it anew?
Doesn’t look like it.
A TV-14 rated version of Rocky Horror was bound to send up red flags no matter how you spun it. This is a story full of sex and murder, horror and chaos, topped with holographic lip gloss. Though the content might seem tamer than it did in the 1970s, that doesn’t mean that it deserves the sanitized, PTA-approved treatment. But Fox was adamant, and Grease Live already happened last year, so this was perhaps the natural next step.
The show has its bright spots; Laverne Cox is statuesque and glorious; Adam Lambert makes for a thoroughly grungy, energetic Eddie; Annaleigh Ashford is perhaps the best Columbia the show has ever had; Ryan McCartan hits every possible note of shock and camp as Brad Majors. The costumes are jaw-dropping eye candy, with so much sparkle that the camera can’t seem to contain them. The cast is a wonderfully diverse group of people, and everyone is very talented.
But the flaws are numerous and too awkward to ignore. The voices are over-pretty, making it clear that nearly everyone has had the same brand of vocal training. (This is a pet peeve of mine; rock musicals do not require a “Broadway sound” and are frequently brought down by it.) Frank-N-Furter is obstructed in her opening number by a giant headpiece for no discernible reason. The violence, such as Eddie’s murder, is toned down to the point of confusion. Sure, it’s fine to say that the story of Rocky Horror Picture Show is no longer shocking to a modern audience, but it is quite another to defang it entirely just in case someone will still be offended by its contents.
Director Kenny Ortega (of Newsies and Hocus Pocus fame among many others) pulled out some excellent choreography, particularly for the Floor Show segment, but the staging overall is weirdly stagnant. It’s as though the production team couldn’t decide whether they needed to film it as a movie or as a live stage show, leading to far too many wide shots coupled with weird close-ups that don’t pan out. It leaves the film looking over-staged, everything oddly laid out as though we’re watching it live… but then we’re reminded that it’s supposed to be a movie every twenty minutes or so due to the “audience” added in.
The choice to use the traditional audience callbacks as a framing device—the opening number features people heading to a movie theater to watch RHPS, and they pop up semi-frequently to shout the usual rejoinder lines and shelter their heads with newspaper—is sloppy and poorly conceived. There are only two reasons to show the audience interactive aspect of RHPS within the film; either you offer it so that the viewers at home can join in, or you add it to introduce a new generation to the callback tradition of the movie. But since it is only used sporadically, it achieves neither of those goals, leaving viewers to balk every time the “audience” reappears because it is easy to forget their existence entirely.
While Laverne Cox is wonderful in everything she does, it’s clear that no one put thought into how her casting could alter and renew the material. The pronouns are simply swapped out, and that’s the end of it. Frank-N-Furter being a woman does have bearing on how the plot comes off, but the production was utterly uninterested in addressing it—how Frank’s experiments to make the perfect man is a different enterprise, how the number “You Better Wise Up, Janet Weiss” comes off shrewder and meaner, how the desire to be dressed the same as Fay Wray reads far more personally when sung by a trans woman. But more importantly, the implicit danger of Frank-N-Furter is missing in this show. She doesn’t seem unpredictable or frightening, and without those aspects, the whole experience feels far too tidy. After all, Frank may be the most popular character of RHPS, but she’s not the hero—she’s the charismatic, charming, and quite deadly villain.
There are a few moments of inspiration laced throughout. During “Dammit, Janet” the deadpan backup singers are actually a funeral procession carrying a coffin to a grave. Columbia’s tongue is dyed forever blue from constantly snacking on lollipops. Staz Nair is clearly having a fantastic time making Rocky as earnest and empty-headed as possible. But those are all offset by so many places of on-the-nose replication, coupled with bland alterations that only serve to dumb down the oddness that Rocky Horror Picture Show beautifully embodies for so many people.
Then there are moments that are downright awkward. For example, in the main dance hall of the castle, there’s something that looks like a rainbow LGBT+ flag family crest with the words “Dream It” above. While it’s understandable that the makers of the show would want to give a shoutout to the queer community, who are largely responsible for embracing the film and maintaining its cult hit status, RHPS is not explicitly “pro-LGBT” in any particular way. Its themes appeal to the queer community, its content is tangentially focused on many aspects of gender and sexuality, but that doesn’t make the film about queerness. Thrusting that decoration into the mix smacks of meaningless lip service, which is not something that Rocky Horror should ever be about.
There’s a lot of glitz, a metric ton of glam, and plenty to ogle… but those elements alone do not make Rocky Horror Picture Show. This Halloween season, you’re better off sticking to the original, either in the theater or at home—did you know most DVD copies have a version that gives you the callback cues right on screen? Grab some friends and go for it, without the weird fourth-wall-breaking interlopers in the way.