There is something so undeniably captivating about a magnificent disaster. It's the same kind of charisma and fear that you see in riots and car crashes. One part horror and one part pure human magnetic curiosity, both coming together to make you turn your head and aim your gaze straight into the wreckage. This is everything I felt and more when I realized that I wanted to, scratch that, needed to see the 1980 Robert Downey Sr. film, Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy.
It all started when I picked up a pristine copy of the vinyl soundtrack at a local flea market about a couple of months back. Unlike more famous soundtracks of early 80's comedies, I was shocked at how crazy solid it was. Case in point, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sure, it had Oingo Boingo, but it also had Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffet. Up the Academy, on the other hand, had Blondie, Ian Hunter and The Modern Lovers. Even the Sammy Hagar track is pretty good. After playing the album dozens of times, it planted the seed of car crash compulsion. First I researched it. I had known beforehand that the film had bombed at the box office and there were some kind of legal actions related to it.
This was an understatement.
The combination of a live action film tied with one of the greatest and most irreverent humor mags to have ever come out of these shores was a brilliant idea....at least on paper. Add to the mix a brilliant underground film maverick in the form of the man that gave the world Putney Swope, Pound and Greaser's Palace, Robert Downey Sr and it's a no brainer. Again, on paper. Throw in a mixed cast that included some young newcomers as well as notable actors like Antonio Fargas, Barbara Bach, Tom Poston and the eternally marvelous Ron Leibman as the main villain along with the aforementioned killer soundtrack and it was sure to be an ace in the deck. So what went wrong?
The first cracks appeared back n the pre-production process, when the script was sent to Mad publisher Bill Gaines. According to an interview that appeared in the Comics Journal, he liked the script as a whole but found some things offensive and requested that certain changes be made. However the changes that Gaines was promised never happened and the end result ended up muddled. To the extent that he ended up paying $30,000 for Warner Brothers to remove any references to Mad, including the appearance of Alfred E. Neuman, on both the cable television print, as well the domestic home video cut. Mad even did a parody called “Mad Magazine Resents Throw Up the Academy.” Adding further to the hot mess factor was actor Ron Leibman, who is the biggest adult character in the film, requesting his name be removed from the film and any related promotional materials.
So, knowing all of this before going into the film, I was prepared for the worst. Like Fraternity Vacation bad. However, the end result, while admittedly uneven, is not the worst thing in the world. The plot centers on three kids whom, due to assorted delinquent behavior, are sent to the Weinberg Military Academy. It's there that they encounter the motley crew of academic faculty, that include a blind barber, a pederast dance instructor (Tom Poston !?) and a weapons expert whose radiant and extremely tan décolletage belongs to Barbara Bach, sporting the weirdest accent that sounds like Cat on a Tin Roof with a dash of Perini Scleroso. The film's real star and the thorn in our young protagonists' side is one Major Vaughn Liceman (Ron Leibman).
Liceman, a former student of Weinberg and happy participant in the My Lai Massacre (yes, that is part of a joke in the film), tries to be the boys' friend which includes spying, assorted racist comments aimed at Hash, the Middle Eastern student and barking out “Say it Again!” anytime he wants to emphatically stress the importance of saying “Sir” at the end of a sentence. Further proof of the amazingness of this villain is that for the first part of the movie, his entrance is always signified by a cool gust of wind and The Stooges “Gimme Danger!”
The boys, headed by Oliver (Hutch Parker), plot revenge after Liceman obtains Polaroids of the young lad in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend, Candy (Stacey Nelkin). Why is that particularly a big deal? Well, the reason Oliver ended up at Weinberg in the first place was due to him getting Candy knocked up, much to the horror of his politician father. One of the bits of satire in the film that halfway works is the fact that Oliver's dad 's campaign hinges on a staunch anti-abortion stance, meanwhile Candy is quickly sent to the abortion clinic before departing to Butch Academy for Women. (If you're groaning, don't worry, I am groaning just typing that last part out.) Well, Oliver's friends help him bust out to go “visit” Candy at her nearby academy for ten minutes, which is just enough time to shake some action.
So, if the photos are exposed, then Oliver's dad's campaign is jeopardized, as well as Oliver's chances of getting his dream car. Add in a subplot involving a fourth student who shows up after setting fire, literally, to his last school and the film goes from already ridiculous to wholly head scratching. Case in point? The strains of Lou Reed's “Street Hassle” intros a scene of the boys doing a “proper” eating exercise in the mess hall. Great song but talk about inexplicable usage. I'm surprised Suicide's “Frankie Teardrop” wasn't used during one of the fart gags.
Figuring turnabout is fair play, the gang enlist Candy to seduce Liceman explicitly so they can jump in and take some incriminating photos of their own. The plan actually goes without a hitch, with Liceman and the gang using an upcoming soccer match between students and the faculty to settle the score. The best part of the ending is the surreal looping of Liceman running after the gang as they drive away, with each loop beginning with the audio of him yelling out “Play it again!” As if it couldn't get any weirder, around the second to last loop, the camera zooms in closer to reveal the figure of Alfred E. Neuman standing at the side of the road waving and then shrugging as a “What, me Worry?” word balloon pops up. Well, when I say Alfred E. Neumann, what I really mean is what appears to be a child wearing a beautifully executed though moderately unsettling mask created by SFX wizard Rick Baker. The end result of this is nothing short of absolute deviltry, though I'm sure Satan had his name taken off the credits too.
Up the Academy has three incredibly strong things going for it. First and foremost is Ron Leibman. The man, who is rock solid in everything he graces, is absolutely majestic here as the Southern milatoid with a penchance for repetition, tying girls up with rope and using “Tickle ya ass with a feather?” as a come on. If they had cast anyone else, the film's watchability would go way, way down. He's charismatic and hilarious, with one of the highlights being the whole seduction scene with Candy. He plays it off so perfectly, right down to doing front clap push ups while she is slipping into something more comfortable. (Which is a belly dancing outfit. Something a random high school aged girl staying at a military academy would happen to have?) His performance outsmarts the script by 800 miles, to the point where I wish he would have left his name in the credits, since he is golden here.
The second is the whole scene with an atrocious a capella group, aptly titled The Landmines. Horrible a capella is admittedly one of my personal comedy triggers, so your mileage may vary. But imagine a band so awful that not only do they practically clear the room, except for an ecstatic and grinning Liceman, but glasses break, dogs growl, stock footage buildings from the past crumble and a woman's shoes fall off. Even better is Leibman's bit at the end, where he asks them if they have any records available.
Then there's the aforementioned soundtrack. Supervised by Blow Up frontman Jody Taylor, it is a veritable Whitman's sampler of the best of the best of 70's era proto-punk (The Stooges, The Modern Lovers), punk/new wave (Eddie & the Hot Rods, Blondie, David Johansen solo) and pop (The Babys, Pat Benatar). The catchiest songs, however, belong to Blow Up themselves, providing both the main song, “Kicking Up a Fuss” and the tune that plays during the “Play it Again” end sequence, “Beat the Devil.” (Again, further proof that Old Scratch was connected to this film.) Much like Liebman's performance, it is too bad that Blow Up's terrific efforts got saddled to a film that ended up being so maligned.
The young cast, minus Ralph Macchio as the incredibly pissy Italian-American Chooch, are serviceable at best. Macchio, only 12 here in his first film role, out-acts all of his peers and makes you wish that his wimpy character in The Karate Kid was this full of moxie and anti-social awesomeness. The others are not bad, but are not terribly memorable either and in fact, inadvertently neutralize some of the better lines in the film. There's also Harry Teinowitz as Rodney Ververgaert, a highly awkward pyromaniac who is so irritating that he actually weighs any scene he is in down. It is one of those performances that is either terrible or brilliant, because he easily makes one recall that kid in school that annoyed even the other student pariahs. Poston is kind of wasted in a one note role that requires nothing for him to do except mince, swish and invoke some of the lighter comedic stylings of your garden variety NAMBLA member. His role is symptomatic of a lot of the more politically incorrect humor, which is occasionally amusing but more of than not falls flat. Antonio Fargas, the great Antonio Fargas, is even more wasted as a cranky soccer coach who shows up for all of two minutes.
The humor misses more than it hits but the film's high weirdness factor combined with its strengths do make Up the Academy an overall entertaining movie. It does make one wonder what could have been if both Downey Sr and the writers at Mad have been given more control. But. that said, the film is worth seeking out on DVD, which has all of the Mad references reinstated, for Ron Leibman, the stellar soundtrack and the most hideously splendid a capella group ever.
For more on Up the Academy, check out this awesome article over at Technicolor Dreams.
Copyright Heather Drain 2014