An ill-conceived effort to turn its leading star, Robin Johnson, into the female John Travolta, Times Square cannot be faulted for its failure to cash in on the Saturday Night Fever craze that took popular culture by storm in the late ‘70s. It was not without admirable aplomb that Times Square attempted to capture the punk movement in its zeitgeist the way the Travolta vehicle did disco, despite its number of shortcomings.
Debuting in the fall of 1980, Times Square caught punk in its penultimate phase when it was just losing steam but, in typical Hollywood fashion, misread the subculture through an abysmally nearsighted lens. If it were not for its magnetic lead Johnson, once referred to by Courtney Love as the perfect composite of Mick Jagger and Marilyn Monroe, the film may have been consigned to the dust-collecting shelves of also-rans that include music-themed flops like Robert Greenwald’s Xanadu (1980) and Nancy Walker’s Can’t Stop the Music (ibid). Johnson, an accidental actor who struck an impression hard enough to ensure no other actor could ever fill her shoes as a punk provocateur, often carries a slack narrative with a shouldering dexterity that belied her young age of 15. Her performance in Times Square, the most dynamic element of the feature, often tussles with a slight story that can only seldom accommodate it.
The setup for the story is simple enough. Two teenage girls, Nicky (Johnson) and Pamela (Trini Alvarado) are brought to a neurological hospital for psychological assessment. Nicky is a runaway and rockstar wannabe who spends her time roaming the streets of New York with an electric guitar in tow. She is cited for disturbing the peace one night after plugging in her axe and grinding away during the midnight hour. Placed under the care of a social worker, Nicky is carted off to the psychiatric ward.
Pamela is the daughter of a wealthy politician with little time for her. When she mildly acts out, her easily rattled father admits her into the hospital for closely-guarded psychological testing, mainly out of fear that her behavior will reflect poorly on his political campaigns.
When the two teens share a room in the hospital, both are initially wary of one another. The girls belong to different worlds and have no reason to trust the other. But one night, Pamela, an aspiring writer, pens an impromptu poem about Nicky, who surreptitiously reads it. Her fearless and feisty roommate enamors Pamela. Nicky, in turn, realizes the depths of Pamela’s writing talents. Deciding that life on the lam would be better than acquiescing to the routines of lab rats, the girls make a break for it and escape from the hospital.
Heading into the deep gutters of the city, Pamela and Nicky take up residence in a dilapidating warehouse by the piers on Manhattan’s West Side and become fast friends. Christening themselves “the Sleez Sisters”, a moniker that also bestows the subsequent punk rock band that they form, the girls raise both hell and their profiles, gaining infamy as anti-establishment firebrands who throw televisions from the tops of buildings and make musical appearances at a local radio station DJ’d by a sympathetic hipster named Johnny (Tim Curry). When their increasing notoriety begins to strain their friendship, they must stop and take inventory of their precarious situation.
Directed by Allan Moyle, Times Square was inspired by the filmmaker’s chance encounter with a girl’s diary he had found inside a second-hand couch. Detailing a sad and often dangerous life on the streets, the diary proved a valuable inspiration for what would become the two girls of Times Square. Moyle had intended to make a film that mirrored the seedy, intemperate life of the young runaway in the diary, but studio hands watered down the grime with enough commercial gloss to turn it into a mostly inoffensive drama.
What is presented as the basic narrative is two adolescent girls traipsing through a grim and violent New York City as though it were a day at Six Flags. While this kind of extreme truancy is not uncommon in the metropolitan bustle of a large city, particularly during the era when the film was made (the ‘80s being the decade of the runaway), Times Square cannot be taken as any serious, true-life depiction of life on the streets. Nicky and Pamela negotiate street life through their toils of petty theft and artless deception, which ultimately invalidates much of the inequities and carnage that plague New York City. The two teens manage their life-threatening circumstances with waggish composure, a rather anodyne reaction to the inhospitable conditions that have injured or killed even the most intrepid city dwellers.
When the girls are strapped for cash, Nicky suggests Pamela, who looks noticeably underage, dance at a strip club run by a friend of hers (Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero). Pamela reluctantly agrees on the condition that she dances with her clothes on. Implausibly, the club owner, blithely ignorant of Pamela’s professional inexperience and her misunderstanding of the club’s social atmosphere, agrees. It’s a touch too sanguine for the nihilism that the story pretends at; a charier, less vulnerable woman has been raped for so much as standing at a bus stop.
The girls’ antics reach fever pitch when, after some rabble-rousing performances at the radio station where they perform original punk songs as the Sleez Sisters, they inflict their brand of insurrection upon the unsuspecting public. This means dropping television sets from the tops of building rooftops, narrowly missing passerby below. The two girls demolish about two dozen sets around the city and are, unbelievably, never caught.
These few narrative defects would be enough to sink the entire picture. Yet, Times Square has a strong appeal. As an artifact of pre-gentrification New York, the film stands proudly above other similar works of the era. A 1980s New York here shows the horrific tension that bemires the city streets. Danger, which miraculously spares these two lively upstarts, is ubiquitous. At the same time, the narrative conspires to have viewers believe that life on the mean streets is simply a walk in the park, where no one should expect to be stabbed or beaten, even though the film’s atmosphere of peril palpably hangs like a thick smog. There is nothing a filmmaker of any consequence could have done to precipitate such auras of menace artificially; what you are watching on the very human scrim that rolls out behind these two leads are the twitchy bodies of native New Yorkers, living their everyday lives in the big city.
Times Square also benefits from its varied musical score, meant to soundtrack every occasion of a teenager’s turbulent life. The prime suspects of punk and new wave turn up to juice the emotional sequences, which means the Ramones, Roxy Music, Tubeway Army, and Lou Reed all get a turn to cash in on the marketing scheme that had Times Square push its soundtrack album. Indeed, Times Square boasts an impressive who’s-who roster of some of the best underground artists of the day spoiled only somewhat by the anomalous inclusion of a Bee Gees number.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release cleans up the print so that it gleams with the garish neon of storefronts, junkshop furnishings, and the curious attire common to the story’s era. The new Blu-ray transfer also corrects the contrast of a previous inferior DVD release by Anchor Bay, which suffered from somewhat muddy, washed-out colors. The sound is especially clear. Available in two separate tracks (DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1), the new transfer fixes up some of the older issues from the Anchor Bay DVD that rendered some of the quieter dialogue difficult to hear.
There are several supplements as well, including an audio commentary track with director Moyle and actor Johnson. Sadly, Alvarado doesn’t sit in on the track, but Johnson and Moyle provide a wealth of insight into the film, discussing the reasons for many of its flaws. As Moyle explains, Times Square was originally intended as a story about two young girls falling in love. Much of this content was excised by studio hands who felt that such a narrative might deter many moviegoers. What is left, after the edits, is a fairly disjointed picture that now only subtly suggests an amorous relationship. A second commentary track by Kat Ellinger is also included, but it isn’t as fun as Johnson and Moyle’s.
If there is any aspect where Times Square truly prospers, it is the charismatic performances of both Alvarado and Johnson. They make the sometimes-turgid storyline an overall pleasure to watch. Johnson has her unruly wild-child schtick down pat, and she evinces true emotion in her moments of psychological shock. Alvarado’s understated, more mannered performance adds sugar to Johnson’s spice, anchoring her opposite’s histrionics with more measured and solicitous movements.
Jointly, the leads create a symbiosis that never seems forced or patched together by the heavy hands of the less-than-discerning adults who fashioned this narrative together. At such a young age, Alvarado and Johnson can generate a true empathy that responds to the general malaise and hopelessness in which their characters are situated. If Times Square’s other elements seem inorganic and overdone, then the performances are utterly instinctive. A sheer punk rock drive engenders them. Johnson and Alvarado simply get up in front of the cameras and show the world what they’re made of.