Before watching the movie:
I seem to have moved from a situation where post-1980s films are more abundant to one where there are hardly any to choose from. Lucky I found Bye Bye Birdie, one of the more popular musicals of the first stage-to-screen push.
I always assumed that Conrad Birdie, the Elvis Presley expy of the story, was a more central character than the synopses I’ve seen make him out to be. It’s all about him, but he sounds more like a Macguffin than a lead player. The actor who plays him isn’t billed specially, and has a name I don’t recognize.
I’m not quite sure why this film/musical has resonated enough to endure in ways others haven’t. It’s not a Grease, but it’s not a… well, the less well-known ones didn’t usually get adapted into films. I can’t really think of a musical film on a lower tier, but I’m sure there are multiple tiers of obscurity yet below this.
Anyway, big stars, big show, and the 1960s before things got tense (well, before the tension got into the mainstream). Some more good clean fun.
After watching the movie:
Girls all over the nation go into a spin when national idol Conrad Birdie is drafted. This is also disastrous news for Albert Peterson, a struggling songwriter who finally got Birdie to agree to one of his songs as the centerpiece for a film he’ll no longer be doing. Fortunately, his secretary/fiancee sells Ed Sullivan’s producer on a big event: Birdie will sing a song by Albert, and then kiss a girl representative of his entire fanbase. That girl, Kim McAffee, just started going steady with a boy, who isn’t at all happy to have some insurmountable competition coming to town to kiss his girl. Albert’s relationship isn’t too great either, as he’s afraid to do anything against what his mother says, and won’t leave her. Also, the town won’t stand for Birdie’s gyrations and wants him gone, and while everybody’s relationships are falling apart, Sullivan’s schedule changes so that nobody may have the time to get anything.
Early on, I thought I could condense the whole plot into “a satire on teen culture of the 50s and 60s, and of adult reaction to it.” However, as the plot progresses, and consequences multiply, that backdrop falls away and it becomes romantic melodrama. I suppose that’s exactly what one went to a musical for at the time, so I can’t fault it, even if it does fall prey to “people being overly irrational to generate plot.”
Being irrational beyond my tolerance creates a wall between me and the character. When Albert can’t just tell his mother how things are, I can understand, since she behaves even more ridiculously than he does. But there’s little excuse for the levels of jealousy Kim’s boyfriend reaches, or rather sustains. It’s natural to be a little jealous of a national heartthrob, and even moreso when that heartthrob is coming to town to kiss your significant other, but there has to be a point when he realizes that it means nothing next to his relationship. He never gets to learn that lesson, and he’s rewarded for his stubbornness.
At least one of the songs was ruined for me by having been completely divorced from the show. I couldn’t take “Put on a Happy Face” seriously. The song on the problem with kids was parodied in an episode of The Simpsons, but at least its meaning is fairly universal. The show is bookended by Ann-Margaret singing the title song with her voice in full “lovestruck teenager” mode, which is at least tolerable when in a chorus, but absolutely grating in solo. Birdie’s two songs are almost certainly meant to be dreadful, but his introductory number is at least pleasant to listen to if you ignore the vapid lyrics. The big song everything hinges on is small, insulting to the ears, and played twice.
There are parts of this film that I enjoyed. The early satire bits were fun, though they sometimes dipped into a place that was a little too fangirly for my comfort. There were also some experiments with integrating animation, as often happened in the 60s, that were a little bit of spectacle you can’t get on the stage. It’s difficult for me to appreciate dance breaks, but this one had some fairly entertaining ones.
Watch this movie: for some fun early 60s frippery.
Don’t watch this movie: for engaging characters.
Bobby Rydell was a pop singer who was a “Teen Heartthrob”-level star from 1959 to about 1963. Then he fell off the radar almost completely, swept away by the British Invasion.
And incidentally, in “Grease”, the name of the school (Rydell High) is a reference to him.
Bye Bye Birdie is one of those movies that’s fun, kind of, but is too tightly tied to the time it was made to translate well. If you weren’t alive and aware of the Teen Heartthrob du jour, it’s easy to not know about them at all — or to only know them as that guy hawking music collections on the infomercial channel.