Down and Out in Hollywood: 'Slam Dance'

A stylish exercise in new wave chic, Slam Dance is an engaging thriller that epitomizes Hollywood's slumming culture of the '80s.

Slam Dance

Rated: R
Director: Wayne Wang
Cast: Tom Hulce, Virginia Madsen, Adam Ant
Extras: No extras
Distributor: Kino Lorber
US DVD release: 2015-10-20

Call it new wave noir. Slam Dance, a chic exercise in merging the hyperactivity of '80s MTV culture with an old-fashioned whodunit, is performed with an admirable balance of flashy, disposable style and a narrative of some substance. It didn’t make heavy waves upon its 1987 release, but it epitomized what the Hollywood culture of the ‘80s was like.

Tom Hulce (best-known for his Oscar-nominated role in Amadeus) plays C.C. Drood, a likable, frustrated goof-off who must suddenly contend with the death of his murdered mistress and then tirelessly work to solve the case if he wants to remove himself as prime suspect. Much of Drood’s time is spent hanging about in bars, working on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist for the city newspaper) and trying to spend quality time with his young daughter, who is in sole custody of her divorced mother.

Drood can’t seem to get his act together, which infuriates his fed-up and uptight ex-wife Helen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Either late for work, causing scenes at his daughter’s school or having numerous flings with Hollywood’s flittering socialites, Drood struggles wearily to redeem himself in the eyes of Helen. So when a string of bizarre events unfold one night, in which Drood is kidnapped and beaten by a bunch of thugs and later brought to the police station for questioning, Helen wants no part of it.

When Drood is informed of the murder of his last lover Yolanda (Virginia Madsen), the result of an upper class sex-scandal, it’s a race against the clock to figure out the parties involved; it seems those involved have marked the young cartoonist as their next target. Things get even dicier when another dead body turns up – this time in Drood’s apartment.

Slam Dance’s most fascinating aspect is its cheetah-speeding edits, the film every now and then bursting into a fit of artful cuts that flash across the screen like a giddy rock video. It may have been a rather vacuous aesthetic flourish, but director Wayne Wang employs this approach to project the sense of growing panic within his leading man. There's a nifty pop-psychology that plays out in the narrative; stylistic touches, like broken mirrors reflecting distorted images and the hyperactive intercuts of Drood at work on his art (both a therapeutic exercise and a reflected internal process of his deductive skills), fill out the picture in the neon swirl of a loud and boozy LA night. The absurdly comic touches that pepper the story, mostly from rocker Adam Ant who plays Hulce’s lame-brained jokster friend, occasionally keep some of the darkness at bay.

Much of this film is working on Hulce’s charm; he glides through his role effortlessly and he always looks like he’s having fun, even when the chips are down. A quirky slowburner like this wouldn’t be right without the moody airs of Virginia Madsen (she seemed to be cinema’s requisite woman-in-jeopardy during the ‘80s), who is used sparingly but effectively as the enigmatic murder victim. It’s your basic Bacall-Bogart film noir all over again, slanted through an MTV perspective; just throw in an ‘80s pop star (Adam Ant) and a bookish Reagan-era “It” girl (that would be Mastrantonio) and it’s a crime caper realized through a Depeche Mode video. The film’s title, Slam Dance, is both a reference to the moshing craze that features in the nightclub scenes as well as the awkward, inelegant dance of this turbulent mystery.

Kino Lorber’s transfer reproduces the picture handsomely, offering images that are pleasantly crisp and clear. Because colour is quite a big deal for a flashy film like this, the hues are lively and radiant and the transfer communicates the full range of the neon palette very nicely. Slam Dance was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Independent Spirit Awards, so that should say something about the visual appeal of the film.

Sound carries well in the transfer. Because this is very much an MTV-inspired production, music is of importance in the film. Many scenes in the narrative (mostly in flashbacks) take place in nightclubs and the sound levels blare healthily through. Dialogue and other ambient noise are clear as well.

Unfortunately, there are no extras that feature on Kino Lorber’s release, save for a trailer of the film. It would have been nice to get some inside info on the production of the film. Reportedly, director Wang wasn’t too impressed with this effort and tried to have his name removed from the credits, so that probably accounts for the absence of any commentary or interview features.

Slam Dance is indeed a trip down memory lane for new wave aficionados. It has all the requisite tropes of an ‘80s thriller: fast cars, flashy edits, loud music and down and out slummers in Tinseltown. It doesn’t exactly have a happy ending, but it has a hopeful one – the kind you’re used to seeing in your favourite rock video.


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