“The Gong Show Movie” (1980, Shout Factory) is a semi-fictionalized look at the mayhem that swirled around its creator and host, Chuck Barris, as he showcased the most surreal and inept acts imaginable on his late ‘70s syndicated amateur talent show. The clips from the program, many of which were too weird or adult for TV broadcast, are the highlight of the movie and showcase how “The Gong Show” was the forerunner for reality television’s sideshow/exhibitionist aesthetic (albeit a lot more entertaining); the actual “story,” with Barris attempting to flee his creation and network bottom-feeding in general, is an awkward mix of romantic comedy, showbiz cautionary tale and slapstick, all of which work about as well as some of the more outré “Gong Show” acts (the guy blowing out a candle with his own flatulence, for example). Shout Factory’s Blu-ray includes informative commentary by Russell Dyball, who discusses Robert Downey, Sr.’s participation in the film (he was replaced as director by Barris), the history (or infamy) of many of the acts and points out cameos by Phil Hartman and Taylor Negron, among others.
More unusual fare awaits in “Tarzan the Ape Man” (Warner Archives Collection, 1959), a much-pilloried adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs jungle adventure with the marvelous coiffured UCLA basketball star Denny Miller as the Lord of the Apes, lots of awkwardly integrated stock footage from previous MGM Tarzan pictures, including “Tarzan and His Mate,” a stuffed animal toy posing as a vicious big cat and (reportedly) Fairfax High students as pygmies. Oscar nominee Joseph M. Newman (“This Island Earth”) directed as best as he could, and the exotica score is by jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers.
And at this point, you can either go serious with “Ghost Story” (1981, Shout Factory), a polished if truncated adaptation of Peter Straub’s supernatural thriller that suffers story-wise by abandoning about half of the source material, but benefits from a classy cast led by Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal, with Alice Krige as a vengeful spirit and special effects by the legendary Dick Smith. Or you can take the full camp/cult route and dig into “Return of the Killer Tomatoes” (1988, Arrow Video), a proudly ridiculous sequel to the 1978 cult comedy, with John Astin mugging gleefully as a mad scientist who uses terrible pop songs to transform the titular fruit into an army of tomato people for world domination plans (you read that right). Arrow’s Blu-ray includes commentary by director James DeBello and an interview with star Anthony Starke, who discusses working with his then-unknown co-star, George Clooney.
Lastly: “Janis: Little Girl Blue” (FilmRise, 2015) provides one of the best biographical portraits of its subject, Janis Joplin, through a wealth of material, from previously unseen material (studio and concert footage shot by D.A. Pennebaker, scenes of Joplin’s return to Port Arthur, Texas for her 10th high school reunion) and letters written by the singer to her parents which detail her emotional landscape in particularly moving terms. Chan Marshall (Cat Power) narrates and reads the letters, while collaborators like Kris Kristofferson and members of Big Brother and the Holding Company provide historical perspective. The Director’s Cut Blu-ray includes new interviews by current performers who claim Joplin as an influence, including Marshall, Pink and Melissa Etheridge. An entirely different look at a larger-than-life persona is available in Robert Mugge’s “Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo” (1978), which takes the unique approach of pairing footage of Rizzo, a controversial police commissioner and mayor of Philadelphia from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, with open-mic performances at a nightclub in that city. The juxtaposition mostly sells the film’s central thesis of Rizzo as a sort of buffoonish commedia dell’arte villain, though it’s probably more appreciated as an example of Mugge’s talent at detailing a life on film than as political statement.