Friday, January 02, 2009

STRONG TOGETHER (1980)

Hot barely rates a footnote in sources like John Clemente’s Girl Groups but the 3-member pop/R&B group put out three LPs, had a Top Ten hit with “Angel in Your Arms” and even starred in their own feature-length movie, STRONG TOGETHER. Press releases for Hot’s first album stressed the multicultural makeup of the group -- one black (Gwen Owens), one white (Cathy Carson), one Hispanic (Juanita Curiel) -- a novelty in the 1970s but something that wouldn’t be blinked at today. Owens and Carson met in the early ‘70s and first began performing as Sugar & Spice, touring with the Wolfman Jack Shock & Rock Review and appearing on Bill Cosby's short-lived Cos show in 1976. The two hooked up with Curiel in 1977 and were signed to Big Tree Records as Hot.

Anyone curious enough to read this review will have STRONG TOGETHER pegged as a problem production before the opening credits have finished. First announced as WE CAN BE STRONG TOGETHER in November 1978, after Hot’s second album came out and failed to set the world on fire, the film went through another four title changes -- STRONG TOGETHER, STRONGER TOGETHER, JUST NOT THE SAME WITHOUT YOU and RUNNING HOT -- before receiving spotty theatrical exposure as SMOKEY AND THE JUDGE (from Cinematic Releasing Corporation, distributor of LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET). Home video releases were under the SMOKEY title (Sun Video Corporation) and also MAKIN’ IT (Academy Home Entertainment). If the movie was ever assigned an MPAA rating, it was under yet another title that I don’t know about. Hot’s third album is titled Strong Together and sports a movie tie-in blurb on its jacket, so unless anyone tells me otherwise I’ll consider STRONG TOGETHER the legit handle.

Slapdash story begins as a drama with Owens and Carson meeting and forming a singer/songwriter team while doing hard time in a women’s penitentiary. Production seams show immediately as Owens’ character gets no backstory but Carson is shown being framed for a botched jewelry heist in a strange flashback that looks like footage from an unfinished film (“special guest” Wade Preston, star of the ‘50s TV series Colt .45 and numerous Italian productions, gets 5 seconds of screen time here as a mobster). Out of sheer boredom, Owens joins a dating service a few weeks before she’s to be paroled and attracts the interest of music industry fringe dweller Morris Levy, played by comedian Darrow Igus from CAR WASH and the Fridays television series (a black guy named Morris Levy -- come on, laugh, that’s comedy). Owens gets out of the slammer first and shows up with Curiel to pick up Carson when she’s paroled a few weeks (months?) later. The two share the same button-down, sexually frustrated parole office (A’leshia Brevard) who takes an instant disliking to them and proceeds to drop in and out of the story with distracting regularity. Igus disappears from the movie after he gets the women a roadhouse singing gig in a hick town called Pitts, only to show up again at the very end. Other characters are introduced and then dropped, such as Carson’s hunky blonde love interest, an indication that production was shut down or re-shoots were required when not everyone was available. Even Curiel, who has maybe three lines of dialogue in the whole movie, is absent from the screen for the bulk of the action involving Owens and Carson’s run-ins with the bumbling Sheriff Cutler (Gene Price) and horny Judge Maddox (Joe Marmo), the law and order in Pitts. Rory Calhoun, another special guest, appears for two minutes as an L.A. record executive judging a talent contest at the roadhouse; it’s as if he just wandered into the bar with some friends, was asked on the spot to do the role, shrugged and said “what the hell.”

No scene flows smoothly into the next. Characters appear to be having conversations with each other, but most scenes are shot as if the actors aren’t even in the same location together. People exit the frame by walking toward the camera, then swerving right or left to squeeze past the camera. Every room has wood paneled walls. The expected car chases seem like an afterthought, with inept stunt work. There are long stretches of G-rated stupidity until a reference to THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES or a joke involving “pederasty with a pig” is suddenly thrown in to stir things up. Beautiful women stay fully clothed while the unattractive sheriff and obese judge are stripped to their underwear twice and even tied to each other in a sexual position. And just when you think this damn thing can’t get any loopier, toad-like character actor Hy Pike shows up in not one but two scene-stealing roles. What a friggin’ mess.

On the plus side, the women of Hot perform five songs and manage to stay above the amateurish material they’re stuck with; Owens and Carson look especially comfortable and may have had prior acting experience. Supporting talent plays the stupid material broadly but not badly. Blame for this one rests solely on the folks behind the camera. Producer Harry Hope’s previous credits include the Al Adamson films DEATH DIMENSION and SUNSET COVE, while writer-director Dan Seeger edited the miserable MY BOYS ARE GOOD BOYS.

(Carson, Owens and Curiel display their gold record awards
for "Angel in Your Arms")

HOT Discography

Singles


“Angel in Your Arms” (1977, #6 Pop, #29 Soul)
“The Right Feeling at the Wrong Time” (1977, #65 Pop, #58 Soul)
“You Brought the Woman Out of Me” (1978, #71 Soul)

Albums


Hot (Big Tree Records, 1977) U.S. #125, Soul #28


If That’s the Way You Want It…You Got It (Big Tree Records, 1978)


Strong Together (Big Tree Records, 1980)

Strong Together (LP track listing)

1. Taking My Love for Granted *
2. Slippin’ Up Slippin’ Around *
3. One Man’s Woman *
4. If That’s What Love is All About *
5. We Can Be Strong
6. Borrow Me *
7. If You’re a Friend
8. You’ve got to be Strong (to be the Other Woman)
9. Take a Little Time Out
10. Gonna Get You into My Heart
11. I Don’t Wanna Be Around When the Hurt Comes

* denotes songs heard in the movie

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