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‘Tapeheads’ (R)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 21, 1988

The more you know about the life style and politics of the MTV generation, the more you're likely to enjoy "Tapeheads," a new comedy in the tradition of "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Hollywood Shuffle." Like Robert Townsend's "Shuffle," "Tapeheads" tends toward the scattershot approach, aiming broadly at so many targets that it can't help but hit plenty of them. Like Rob Reiner's "Spinal Tap," much of the humor is so inside, or so subtle, that the film will reveal itself only through repeated viewings.

On the surface, "Tapeheads" is just one more in a long line of "we're going to make it in show biz" films; the twist is that the central characters -- Tim Robbins and John Cusack as lifelong friends bound mostly by their enduring love for a classic R&B duo, the Swanky Modes -- are going to make it as rock 'n' roll video makers. That context allows director Bill Fishman -- himself a veteran of 30 music videos -- to send up rock videos, rock, rap, MTV and the music industry itself, as well as sex, politics, religion and commercials.

Robbins, so effective as "Nuke" LaLoosh in "Bull Durham," plays Josh Tager, another idiot savant, this time in the electronics field: Josh has an innate visual sensibility that is unfocused until pal Ivan Alexeev (Cusack) decides to channel him into rock videos. Driven from their homes by parents who just don't understand them, Josh and Ivan resurface in an empty warehouse inhabited by a quirky young painter (Katy Boyer) and start plying their trade as the Video Aces.

The going is rough and at first they must make do shooting "living wills" (a funny, slightly sick bit, this one), funerals and weddings. Eventually, they get to do several "on spec" videos for a Swedish heavy metal band, Cube Squared, and a sleaze-raunch aggravation called the Blender Children, though their hearts are set on reviving the floundering career of the Swanky Modes. Various loose threads -- a missing video of a politician's sexual indiscretions, parental squabbles and love/lust in bloom -- eventually tie together in a finale that involves Menudo, the Swanky Modes, the FBI and ... well, you get the ID.

When it's good, "Tapeheads" is very good: The opening credits are played over hilarious family video footage; two rap commercials for Roscoe's Chicken 'n' Waffles with ex-Bonedaddy King Cotton are stupid fun; the Cube Squared video shoot is conceptualism run amok. And the film is littered with funny lines and hip cameos -- Martha Quinn as a veejay, Jello Biafra as an FBI agent, "Soul Train" conductor Don Cornelius as Fuzzball Records' insincere owner, Mo Fuzz. Also flickering through are Ted Nugent, Doug E. Fresh, Stiv Bator and the Lords of the New Church, Lyle Alzado and, for trash-nostalgia value, Connie Stevens, Clu Gulager, Jessica Walter, even executive producer Michael Nesmith.

John Cusack is a little smarmy in his role as the ever-angling Ivan. Outfitted with ugly sharkskin jackets and a thin mustache, he looks like John Waters; unfortunately he's not as funny. Tim Robbins, on the other hand, is delightful as the brainy Josh, alternately befuddled and empowered by his video instincts. He's sort of a galoot, but there's a naturalness to him, a mix of grace and clumsiness, that's quite endearing. Still, Cusack and Robbins are not this film's most dynamic duo: When Sam Moore teams up with Junior Walker in the Swanky Modes, it's not just a meeting between the Stax and Motown traditions, but between two soul legends. Their finale, "Ordinary Man," is a neoclassic in the making.

As for all the sendups, they are occasionally clever, often funny, but seldom as acutely satirical as the digs in "Spinal Tap." MTV and the rock moguls will hardly quiver with fear, and there's a disconcerting replication of those industries' male domination: The women's roles here are slight and stupid.

"Tapeheads" sees itself spoofing the MTV generation's triumph of image over substance, but in the end, it only reinforces it. The irony is that nothing Fishman and his cohorts have come up with is really as funny as a two-hour slice of MTV itself.

"Tapeheads" is rated R and contains some offensive language.

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