“Roller Boogie”: Polyurethane, polyester & more feathered hair than “Charlie’s Angels”

By on May 2, 2015

Roller Boogie has many distinctions, a few of which we’ll discuss here, starting with the fact that it was the very last movie of the 1970s, released in late December, 1979.

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United Artist, the major film company who actually had a reputation for fostering cinematic creativity and allowing directors the complete freedom to make the films they wanted to make, had been expecting to have Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate to screen on Christmas Day, but Cimino — whose previous movie, The Deer Hunter, had won the Academy Award for Best Picture earlier in 1979 — had not delivered his celebrated film as promised, even though it meant that Heaven’s Gate would not be eligible for the 1980 Academy Awards because it had not screened theatrically in ’79.

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So, UA scrambled to have a movie to throw up on the screens that had been set aside for Heaven’s Gate, and were forced to add additional theater screens for the little low-budget movie they were releasing that month, which they considered their “fun” film, countering what they expected to be their big, serious movie, Cimino’s monster, which was what they figured the movie critics would be focusing on anyway.

That “throw up” was, of course, Roller Boogie, made for a trifle, just $1.4 million, which they had purchased from the independent Compass International Films for $3.5 million, handing the filmmakers a handy $2.1 mllion profit (hope that’s correct, we were told there would be no math).

UA turned around and recouped some of their money when they made a TV deal with HBO, who spent $600,000 for the film’s U.S. broadcast rights, despite having seen only a fragment of rough footage. Wisely, the filmmakers had held on to foreign distribution rights, but we’ll get to that in a sec.

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Producer Irwin Yablans actually thought Roller Boogie would be a hit, and he was, you might say, even effusive about the movie: in June of 1979 he called the film “the hot new musical movie that will take America by storm,” before any shooting had even taken place. Yablans is actually credited with the story, co-written by Barry Schneider, so you might say he was merely expressing some wishful thinking that the film would find its audience.

At the time, of course, the movie seemed like it had two things going for it — disco and rollerskating — and Roller Boogie was poised to cash in on the popularity of both… but so did another movie at the time, Columbia Pictures’ Skatetown, U.S.A., and both film companies were rushing through the summer to get their movie out first.

Roller Boogie (Mark L. Lester, 1979)

Curiously, there are some additional connections that link Roller Boogie and Skatetown U.S.A., and they have relatively nothing to do with either disco or rollerskating. They have everything to do with another Compass International Film production, a little horror movie called Halloween. Nick Castle (who played The Shape in Halloween and has had his hand in a number of John Carpenter’s subsequent films) wrote the screenplay to Skatetown, U.S.A. and it was Yablans who came up with the concept behind Halloween (originally: The Babysitter Murders). Finally, cinematographer Dean Cundey, who gave Halloween its distinctive look, was also behind the camera for Roller Boogie (it’s interesting to note that much of the movie is actually just montages of kids rollerskating to disco).

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There’s nothing about Roller Boogie‘s actual story here that we haven’t seen before: Beverly Hills teenager Teresa “Terry” Barkley (Linda Blair) is young, pretty, spoiled/rich, and a prodigy on the flute, so of course, she’s completely miserable. All she really wants to do is rollerskate. She ends up having has a summer romance with a Venice Beach roller disco hotshot named Bobby James (Jim Bray), despite getting grief from her disapproving parents. He’s young, pretty, impoverished, and a prodigy on roller skates, so, of course, he’s blissfully happy. All he really wants to do is rollerskate…but in the Olympics.

Their relationship culminates in their saving a local skating rink from unscrupulous property developers (i.e. the mob — with Mark Goddard, from the TV series “Lost In Space,” as the main bad guy), then they win a big disco-skating contest (“Jammer’s Roller Boogie Contest”) before parting to pursue their individual destinies: she, a classically-trained flutist, leaves for Juilliard; he, a world-class disco-skater, sets his jaw and resumes training for the Olympics, determined to bring that roller-boogie gold home from Moscow. Of course, we now know that there would be no Olympic gold for America in 1980 (and, as nearly as we can recall, no disco-skating medals for anyone).

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If it sounds like the plot to one of those American International beach party movies, you aren’t far off. Even Roger Ebert, in his review of the movie in late 1979, recognized that it shared a plotline with “the beach party/blanket/bikini/bongo/bingo/barbecue gang: Annette and Frankie, down on the beach with their surfboards, catching the monster waves and dancing to ‘Surfin’ USA’ and planning a big dance down at the local teen hangout…until a fascist meanie local real estate speculator announces plans to buy the hangout, tear it down immediately, and put up something real thrilling like, say, a senior citizens’ condominium.”

The movie was always planned to star Linda Blair, in first non-Exorcist leading role in a theatrical release (she’d been making some really wonderful TV movies), but her original partner in the film was to be Canadian actor David Kennedy, who Blair was dating at the time. However, after Blair and Kennedy ended their relationship, Kennedy was dropped from the movie, at Blair’s request, and other actors were considered for the leading role, including Peter Gallagher, but the role of Bobby James was finally given to Jim Bray, an American amateur rollerskating champion who had won over 270 awards for his skating talents by the age of eighteen.

Bray had been originally cast as the stuntman for the un-cast male lead, but producers realized that it would be easy enough to give him a few quick acting lessons and soon Bray was starring in his first motion picture. The publicity team went into overdrive, building up Bray in the pages of 16 Magazine as the next new teen heartthrob.

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The August 1979 issue of Roller Skating Magazine had this to say about Jim Bray: “[He] is one of the most talented young freestyle skaters in the USA… Jim has skated competitively for 12 years, having won every Artistic Singles event from Primary Boys to Senior Men’s in his Regional competitions. In National meets, he has won in all divisions with the exception of Senior Mens (in which he placed second in 1977 and third in 1978). Altogether, this young freestylist has about 275 trophies to show for his skating efforts.”

Meanwhile, Blair — in her first real film girl as a young woman, and not a distressed young girl — lost weight, and she learned to skate. “She was a real trouper,” recounted Yablans, nearly a decade later, insisting that she really did do most of her own disco-skating for the film, although that’s still up for dispute since there were two stunt doubles, including skating trainer Barbara Guedel, who would perform the trickier stunts in the competition sequence.

The cast were given just three weeks of training before production was to begin, and at the behest of their managers/producers, the principal actors were only on roller-skates for short periods of time. Blair, meanwhile, would develop bursitis in her hip during the making of the picture.

All of the skating sequences and the dancing sequences were choreographed by David Winters, and Guedel tested over 300 young skaters, finally selecting fifty that would make up the skating crowds in the picture – many of whom would also feature in another skating-influenced picture in 1980, a little movie called Xanadu.

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The producers realized that they were mostly making a movie that would appear to young females, so they ramped up some of the gratuitous T&A factor in the casting of the nubile female extras for the young men that they hoped would fill the theater seats, bringing their dates with them, of course.

Director Mark L. Lester, who we have to thank for both Truck Stop Women and Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, as well as Class of 1984, Commando and Firestarter, among so many others, also made sure that there was plenty of shirtless young men for the ladies too.

Trust us, there’s not a natural fiber in sight here, just lots of polyurethane wheels, polyester shorts and more feathered hair than any single episode of “Charlie’s Angels” (who, by the way, just happened to go to Venice Beach to track down a kidnapped skater during the 1979 episode “Angels On Wheels”).

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Shooting began on July 9, 1979, and continuing for the next eight weeks, through the Summer of ’79, with most of the lensing taking place on the boardwalks of Venice Beach (Ocean Front Walk, Venice Beach Park — also seen in Breakin’, the Venice Pavillion), but also in Beverly Hills. The exterior shots of “Jammer’s Roller Rink” were filmed at Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale, CA, and, for the final competition sequence, at The Stardust Ballroom in Hollywood. At the end of principal photography, Blair had to return to Florida for a court appearance (from her cocaine possession arrest, in 1977).

As you might expect, since disco was going to be a big part of the story too, an an earlier version of the script had Bray’s character’s main interest as songwriting, and he’s seen writing a new song, with his friends, by humming into a tape recorder. Once he meets Terry, she assists him in scoring the song, using her musical abilities, and by the end of the movie, Terry leaves for her music scholarship whilst Bobby pursues his musical career. That idea was later scrapped and replaced with his hopeful Olympic aspirations instead, although some early publicity photos showing Bray writing songs with a portable tape recorder in hand.

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Casablanca Records readied a double-LP, and almost all of the tracks were written directly for the movie by Bob Esty and Michelle Aller, who at the time had recently scored a hit with rollerskating enthusiast Cher’s “Take Me Home.” Cher would contribute one song to the Roller Boogie soundtrack, the Esty-produced “Hell on Wheels,” used in the opening sequence. The track was originally featured on her Prisoner album, and a rare accompanying video clip featuring Cher roller-skating also appeared around the same time as the release of the movie.

Some of Casablanca Records artists on the soundtrack are pretty much forgotten today, such as Johnny Coolrock and Cheeks. The song “Lord Is It Mine,” performed by Bob Esty, was originally written by Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson for their Breakfast in America LP. He also performed the tracks “Summer Love,” “Rollin’ Up A Storm,” and “Roller Boogie.” The segued opening tracks of side two of the double LP, “Electronix (Roller Dancin’),” and the Latin-disco instrumental “Cunga,” are credited to Bob Esty and Cheeks. Earth, Wind & Fire’s massive disco hit “Boogie Wonderland” appears on the soundtrack too, a ringer if there was ever a disco ringer, but Jean Shy’s “Night Dancer,” which is heard in the movie when Terry first visits the roller-disco rink, doesn’t.

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Skatetown, U.S.A -- which began principal photography a week after Roller Boogie — came out first, premiering in October of 1979. It had a good cast: sitcom actors Scott Baio and Maureen McCormick, with a supporting cast that included comedian Flip Wilson, Ron Palillo (of “Welcome Back, Kotter” fame) and featured clean-cut Valley Boy Stan (Greg Bradford) and local hothead Ace (Patrick Swayze) as two young skaters who settle their rivalries at a roller disco. Sounds great, right? It failed at the box office. You’d think that UA would have been wondering how their little “fun” movie was going to do, considering it wasn’t coming out for a few more months — and theirs didn’t have quite the same principal cast to promote.

On the very eve of Roller Boogie‘s release, Yablans had even incredulously dismissed the commercial failure of the rival Skatetown, U.S.A. as the result of a marketing miscalculation on the part of its distributor. “The film was rushed too quickly into release,” Yablans told Variety, “and thus there was insufficient lead time to prepare a substantial advertising campaign.”

Yablans may have been correct, but Roller Boogie did not “take America by storm.” The film — which premiered in New York City in early December — was released nationally on December 23rd, grossing $13.2 million (again, a nice profit for UA and all concerned), and it indeed it seemed to prove popular with teen audiences — movie critics hated it, of course — but it too quickly faded from sight as the two things it had going for it — disco, and rollerskating — both seemed to fall out of favor pretty much simultaneously in 1980. Roller Boogie, in fact, personifies the self-impressed, self-involved nature of roller-disco itself, and audiences apparently didn’t want to see that kind of display in the new decade.

The movie did much better in Mexico and Latin American countries, and in 1988, for Roller Boogie‘s ninth anniversary (?), director Lester, who was still standing up for it, said that the film’s favorable audiences “loved the energy, the kids, the music.” Mexican investors even approached Lester about making a sequel, Acapulco Roller Boogie. Which would have been AWESOME.

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Meanwhile, with Skatetown, U.S.A.’s, and now Roller Boogie‘s, failure at the box office, marketing executives at Universal went to great lengths in the summer of 1980 to hide the fact that their movie, Xanadu, had been born a roller-disco movie too. It was remoulded as a dance extravaganza, with a few numbers by veteran hoofer Gene Kelly blown out of all proportion in promotion for the feature. Today, of the three, Xanadu is probably remembered as the best of the three — most memorable? — although despite Universal’s desperate effort to re-brand its property, they could not prevent Xanadu from being seen alongside Michael Cimino’s bloated western Heaven’s Gate as the biggest box-office failure of 1980.

Meanwhile, Skatetown, U.S.A. and Roller Boogie are regularly screened together and held up as examples of 70s fad movies, and are considered by some two of the most beloved bad movies of all time. Roller Boogie is, in fact, listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson’s book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of the The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made, and he says it would have been a nominee for a Razzie if Razzies had been around back then.

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Not everyone appreciates it for its badness, though: “It’s terrible, unwatchable,” says an anonymous executive at MGM/UA video, which owns the domestic home rights to Roller Boogie and stubbornly refuses to make the film available (a rare, underground pirate copy, smuggled from a non-democratic Latin American country, was viewed for the film’s ninth anniversary commemorative celebration). “We’ve offered it to smaller companies, and they don’t want it. The ex-dry cleaning merchants who sell video now, they don’t want it. Nobody wants it.”

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Linda Blair, according to a Teen Beat article published in 1980, had intended on moving away from the horror genre, but returned to the genre the following year in another Compass International Pictures produced movie, Hell Night. Roller Boogie turned out to be the near-last gasp of a once promising career, but she speaks fondly of the movie now:

“Roller Boogie is a staple. It’s a slice of Americana. It’s Beach Blanket Bingo meets roller skates. I hear they just ran it not too long ago on Sunset Blvd. A couple weeks ago someone told me they ran Roller Boogie. I’m like, ‘Why didn’t somebody call me? Bad on the PR people. You should have made it a charity event. Why would they not have?’ But they did, they ran Roller Boogie. I could have skated up and down. Well, probably not. I might’ve fallen on my noggin.”

Meanwhile, Blair’s co-star, Jim Bray, did not appear in any other films after Roller Boogie, despite achieving something of pin-up status in teen magazines largely based on his appearance in the film.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.