Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Tapeheads (1988)
Studio Line: Anchor Bay - Let's get into trouble, baby!

After being fired from their jobs as security guards, lifelong friends Ivan (John Cusack) and Josh (Tim Robbins) form 'Video Aces' to break into the world of music videos. But when they try to resuscitate the career of legendary soul duo The Swanky Modes (Junior Walker and Sam Moore), they find themselves careening through an outrageous underworld of chicken and waffles, Scandinavian synth bands, Menudo concerts, and a presidential candidate with a fairy princess fetish.

Tapeheads features appearances by Don Cornelius, Connie Stevens, Martha Quinn, Ted Nugent, Bob Goldthwait, Jello Biafra, and Michael Nesmith, plus a killer soundtrack of songs by Fishbone, Devo, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, They Might Be Giants, King Cotton, Bob Roberts and more!

Director: Bill Fishman
Cast: John Cusack, Tim Robbins, Mary Crosby, Clu Gulager, Katy Boyer, Jessica Walter, Sam Moore
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 26 chapters; rated R; 93 min.; $24.98; street date 3/13/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Director Bill Fishman, Executive Producer Michael Nesmith and Production Designer Catherine Hardwicke
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/C+

Although this will not come as a shock to long-time readers of my reviews, I feel I should explain something to new folks in the audience: I’m not very bright. I could offer scads of example that demonstrate this fact, but I’ll stay on topic for now. A few months back, I requested a screened DVD copy of Tapeheads from Anchor Bay. I saw the film theatrically and recalled that I enjoyed it, so I figured I’d give it another look.

When the disc actually arrived, I stared at it in confusion. On the cover were Tim Robbins and John Cusack, while I expected to see Brendan Fraser, Adam Sandler and Steve Buscemi. Slowly my error dawned on me: I thought I’d requested 1994's Airheads, not this obscurity from 1988.

While I felt no enthusiasm toward a screening of this unknown quantity, I accepted responsibility for my mistake and gave it a look; after all, Anchor Bay sent it to me in good faith, so I figured I owed it to them to follow through with a review. Much to my surprise, Tapeheads turned out to be a fun and entertaining little piece that I rather enjoyed. It could be wildly inconsistent, but my overall impression was positive.

Our protagonists in Tapeheads are life-long friends Ivan (Cusack) and Josh (Robbins) are stuck in dead-end jobs as security guards. After Ivan’s hijinks get them bounced from that gig, they decide to go into business as music video mavens as the “Video Aces”. The film follows them as they work themselves into that world, especially as they attempt to revive the career of their musical heroes, fictional soul legends the Swanky Modes (played by real-life soul legends Sam Moore and Junior Walker).

In many ways, Tapeheads feels like an alternate version of 1984’s Repo Man. That similarity may not be coincidental since the two came from the same producers. Both focus on an aspect of the youth culture - though this was more prominent in punk-oriented RM - and they also offer similar “conspiracy” plots. In the case of RM, there was a running bit about aliens, while Tapeheads is more down-to-earth. Here the Aces have unwittingly acquired a juicy videotape of presidential candidate Norman Mart (Clu Culager), and his minions are out to get it from them.

Frankly, I could have lived without that element, as it seems superfluous and useless. The movie would have been fun enough without such silly antics, and they only added to the confusion found in this project. To say that Tapeheads proceeds at an erratic pace would be a gross understatement. The film flits from scene to scene with abandon but without much logic or coherence; it can be a dizzying experience, but not in a positive way.

As was also the case with Repo Man, Tapeheads also felt a bit self-consciously hip at times. We find too many wacky cameos - such as from Connie Stevens and Doug McClure as Josh’s parents - and the lame in-jokes also get to be a bit much. For example, Dead Kennedy’s frontman Jello Biafra plays one of Mart’s goons, and he actually refers to himself at one point.

Despite those flaws, I really liked most of Tapeheads. A lot of my enjoyment came from the cast. It was great fun to see Robbins and Cusack in such early roles. Neither of them did much to distinguish themselves, but they seemed game and offered good characterizations nonetheless.

However, most of the delight I took from Tapeheads related to the supporting cast. I was most entertained by the fresh characterizations offered by some non-actors. As the Modes, both Walker and Moore are terrific; they bring the roles to life with vibrant and witty performances. Better yet was Don Soul Train Cornelius as slick low-rent record exec Mo Fuzz. He really makes the most of his limited time on screen. Even the throwaway gags worked well in the hands of Cornelius. For example, a lame bit in which Fuzz uses an intercom to tell his secretary to hold his calls - although she’s only about ten feet from him - becomes hilarious due to Cornelius’ sublime line reading.

Moments like that make Tapeheads worth a look. As a whole, the film is a sloppy, semi-incoherent mess, but it seemed genial enough, and there’s enough clever and funny material here to merit a viewing. It ain’t a classic, but it’s a lot of fun nonetheless.

One last note: keep an ear out for a tune called “Repave America”. Its appearance marks what may have been the first outing of Bob Roberts, the Robbins character who would later be the focus of a full film. Oh, and speaking of music, if anyone knows how to get the rap song performed for the Roscoe’s ad out of one’s head, please let me know; that insanely-catchy example of late Eighties metal-rap has been firmly wedged in my brain for weeks!

The DVD:

Tapeheads appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it occasionally betrayed a few problems typical for films of the era, for the most part I found Tapeheads to look quite strong.

Sharpness seemed consistently solid. A few interior shots displayed a little softness at times, but these instances were quite rare, and most of the movie appeared crisp and well-defined. Some modest moiré effects cropped up due to blinds, but the picture seemed to be free from signs of jagged edges. As a whole, the print appeared to be fairly clean. It showed a few specks and some grit plus occasional signs of minor grain, but these were all pretty insignificant. The majority of the movie seemed clean and surprisingly fresh.

Although many films made in the Eighties show bland colors, that generally wasn’t a problem during Tapeheads. A few shots seemed a little drab, but for the most part, hues looked nicely bright and vivid, and they remained solid throughout the film; no signs of bleeding or noise cropped up at any time. Black levels were similarly positive. Again, some murkiness appeared during a few interiors, but these concerns were rare and most of the film looked deep and rich. Shadow detail seemed appropriately thick but not excessively dense, as most low-light situations presented good resolution. Ultimately, Tapeheads offered a surprisingly compelling visual experience.

Also quite good was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Tapeheads. As one might expect, the emphasis was strongly on the musical elements, all of which displayed very solid stereo separation. Songs also spread nicely to the rear at times, but the focus stayed at the front, which was really where it belonged. Effects occasionally broadened to the sides and the rear, and the ambience could be quite nice at times, but these were minor elements of the film since the music was most important. Ultimately, the sound field highlighted the important parts of the movie and benefited the on-screen action.

Audio quality seemed to be fine for the most part. Dialogue was acceptably natural and distinct, and speech showed no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects came across as a little flat, but they seemed adequately realistic and clear, without any distortion. Most importantly, music functioned quite well, as the various tunes sounded nicely bright and crisp. Bass levels probably could have been a bit deeper, but they seemed pretty rich and tight nonetheless. Tapeheads provides a very positive soundtrack that belied its origins as an older, low-budget flick.

On this DVD, we find only one major extra, but it’s a good one. We get a running audio commentary from director Bill Fishman, executive producer Michael Nesmith, and production designer Catherine Hardwicke. All three were recorded together for this screen-specific track. Although the piece occasionally suffers from “too many years ago” syndrome - it seems clear that the three participants have thought about Tapeheads too frequently over the last 13 years - we nonetheless hear quite a lot of good information about the film. Hardwicke and Fishman provide the bulk of the goods, as Nesmith seems to have the weakest recollection of the movie. Despite that, he chimes in with some good insight as to his end of the production, and the thoughts of the other two more than make up for any gaps on the ex-Monkee’s side. Ultimately, I thought this was a witty and compelling commentary that I really enjoyed.

In addition, the DVD package includes a very nice booklet. This piece provides some good production notes and a slew of stills from the shoot. Anchor Bay almost never throw in this kind of piece with their non-“Limited Edition” discs, so I was very happy to find such a solid booklet here.

Speaking of limited editions, the initial release of Tapeheads tosses in an extra that apparently won’t appear in later pressings. Tucked inside the case you’ll find a CD single for “Ordinary Man” by the Swanky Modes. Frankly, I could live without the “limited” nature of this disc - it wouldn’t kill Anchor Bay to make it a normal feature for Tapeheads - but I suppose it’s better to have a fun piece like this on a limited basis than not at all.

Considering the limited audience for a cult comedy like Tapeheads, it may not matter that only the first 50,000 copies of the DVD include the CD; that may be enough to sit on shelves for years. Well, no matter how many copies of Tapeheads fall into the hands of the general public, I rather liked the film. It had many flaws but in the end it still was brash and fun, largely due to some lively performances by the supporting cast. The DVD offered surprisingly strong picture and sound plus a good audio commentary. Whether you buy it or rent it, you should give Tapeheads a gander.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.

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