Categorizing a movie as a time capsule reduces it to a simple evocation of a specific time and nothing else. William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. is drenched in 1985, a Wang Chung score, rampant androgyny, ridiculous car chases, cheerful amorality, and a cynical fetishism that seems modeled on Miami Vice, which debuted on TV only a year earlier. And yet, To Live and Die in LA is still one of the best cop-thrillers ever made, tense and exciting, brilliantly edited, smartly written, and with an ending so nihilistic, it’s hard to believe the studio was willing to release it. Walter Hill’s The Warriors is also very much of its year, 1979, from the dialogue, fashions, music, and attitudes, but that doesn’t make it dated, even if the novel it’s based on is modeled on the war between Greece and Persia in the 4th century BC.
Skatetown, U.S.A., like The Warriors, was released in 1979 (but likely shot a few years earlier), but has no such historical pedigree. As a movie, it is a goofy and dated mess, starring everyone who happened to have a schedule availability from their stints on The Gong Show (the Unknown Comic), Happy Days (Scott Baio), C.P.O Sharkey (David Landsberg), The Brady Bunch (Maureen McCormick), Welcome Back, Kotter (Ron “Horshack” Palillo, who also made the amusingly silly Hellgate with Skatetown director William A. Levey*), Laugh-In (Ruth Buzzi), and Little House on the Prairie (Melissa Sue Anderson). That doesn’t even scratch the surface on the “hey, don’t I know that guy” casting, as there’s also Flip Wilson, Billy Barty, Judy Landers, Bill Kirchenbauer (who was even that bald at the age of 26), a slew of Catskills comics, and murdered Playboy Bunny Dorothy Stratten. Skatetown, U.S.A. is also the debut of the late Patrick Swayze, playing the villain and gang leader, Ace, who runs the roller disco with an iron skate (“I take the trophy and the women”).
You know that Ace’s gang is tough when it has a bearded Horshack as its enforcer. Not only that, their entrance into the film has them skating throughout the rink floor, knocking at least a hundred people over, before leaving the floor to take their throne/seats. The magician/DJ (complete with a big white wig and powers that might be generously described as “funky”) then consoles the crowd, and hopes they can get “stitched up.” That sets the stage and animosity for Scott Baio, a self-appointed manager of skaters, and his client Greg Bradford, to compete in the skate-off against Ace and his duplicitous crew (they use mirrors and itching powder on the other contestants). Bradford is understandably nervous, he’s never done indoor skating, only wild and uncontrolled stuff in the suburbs (“I do okay on the streets, but this is Skatetown, USA!”). Baio has never been to Skatetown, U.S.A. but assures Bradford he knows how to win and has him dress in a skin-tight pink shirt that shows off his six-pack and other manly attributes. To give you an idea of the innocence of the time period and the mindset behind Skatetown U.S.A. (despite the movie’s strangely gratuitous and constant drug references), Bradford performs his solo show to The Village People’s Macho Man, and there’s not even the hint that there might be a homoerotic tint to it, he even courts Ace’s younger sister.
The rest of Skatetown, U.S.A. is an episode of American Bandstand on skates, extended dancing sequences featuring obvious professionals who aren’t part of the story, constant disco songs (from Shake Your Body to Boogie Wonderland, basically pretty much every famous disco song from that era as long as it isn’t I Will Survive or appeared on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), a live performance by Joe Cocker, and even strained stand-up interludes from Flip Wilson and The Unknown Comic. The skating sequences are the most entertaining of the movie, they go on long enough that the plot involving the almost-washed up TV stars (a better title for the movie might have been TV Time Capsule: The Movie) is like a seat filler. Surprisingly, Swayze does his own skating, and he’s really good, as it combines his dancing expertise with rather daring skating maneuvers for an actor with an extensive speaking role.
It’s sort of sad that there still aren’t wonderfully idiotic productions like Skatetown, U.S.A. anymore, and not just because it beat the similar Roller Boogie and Xanadu to the screen, both of which led to the nail in the disco skating coffin. What I’m referring to is the notion of a sort of 90 minute variety show with musicians, comics, and TV actors in a theatrically released film. The closest we’ve had since is High School U.S.A. (there was no sequel connection) which featured Michael J. Fox, Nancy McKeon, Anthony Edwards, Cripsin Glover, and whomever was free on the set of Diff’rent Strokes, and that only retained the lame slapstick sequences and faded celebrity supporting cast, and as a movie, High School U.S.A. was actually just a failed TV pilot. The skating movie has morphed into an underground indie thing (like with Spike Jonze’s Yeah Right!) and TV actors have only been willing to embarrass themselves in Lifetime or Hallmark channel movies.
It almost makes you wish that Swayze could come back to life to encourage struggling actors and dancers to make their own versions of Skatetown, U.S.A just to tell them, “hey, I got my start this way, there’s no shame in it. Don’t worry, in a few years, it’ll get buried in a heap of music rights issues and fuzzy, drug addled memories, and by that time, you’ll already be making sincere and ridiculous action movies. Besides, Point Break 2 is going to need a new Bodhi.”
*Skatetown, U.S.A. was co-written by Nick Castle, who may have directed kid stuff like Dennis the Menace later in his career, but is primarily known as the guy behind the Shatner mask, playing Michael Myers in the original Halloween.