Beyond the Valley of the DollsOverview -
In 1970, 20th Century-Fox, impressed by the visual zing “King of the Nudies” Russ Meyer brought to bargain-basement exploitation fare, handed the director a studio budget and the title to one of its biggest hits, Valley of the Dolls. With a satirical screenplay by Roger Ebert, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls follows three young female rockers going Hollywood in hell-bent sixties style under the spell of a flamboyant producer—whose decadent bashes showcase Meyer’s trademark libidinal exuberance. Transgressive and outrageous, this big-studio version of a debaucherous midnight movie is an addictively entertaining romp from one of the movies’ great outsider artists.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
The biggest bit of trivia about 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' isn't that it was director Russ Meyer's first shot at establishing himself as a legitimate studio director, but the fact that the screenplay was penned by famed movie critic Roger Ebert. This was just a few years after Ebert had started his film writing duties at The Chicago Sun-Times, and long before his Pulitzer Prize (1975) or his 'Sneak Previews' pairing with fellow Chicagoan Gene Siskel (also in 1975). Still, Ebert was an established and noted writer, and perhaps the best answer to why he would risk his reputation to team up with 'King of the Nudies' Meyer to make a movie is given by one of his longtime friends in the Ebert documentary Life Itself. When asked why Roger would write the screenplay for a movie like this, the friend gives a one-word reply: "Boobs".
The on-screen text at the very opening of the movie informs viewers that this film is not a sequel to the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, although one will need to watch the bonus materials or listen to Roger Ebert's commentary track to learn why. Apparently, 20th Century Fox had the rights to make a movie using the 'Beyond' title, but a couple of story ideas from 'Valley of the Dolls' writer Jacqueline Susann had been rejected by the studio. Still, hoping to make a quick buck off the original picture's success (and you probably thought only modern-day Hollywood did that...it's been happening for years, my friends), the studio went after Meyer – who had a reputation as someone who could make a movie on a dirt-cheap budget and turn a healthy profit. Meyer wanted to parody the first film, however, and it was he who went after Ebert – thinking only a writer outside of the Hollywood establishment would be able to write the kind of story he was hoping to film.
Trying to describe the movie for those of you who have never seen the film is a daunting task, but I'll provide the basics: primarily, it's about an up and coming all-girl band (originally called 'The Kelly Affair' but later dubbed 'The Carrie Nations') who make their way to Hollywood and get involved in all the trappings of fame: sex, drugs, and, eventually, violence. The band is made up of three young women: Kelly MacNamera (Dolly Read), Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and Pet Danforth (Marcia McBroom), along with Kelly's boyfriend Harris (David Gurian), who manages the band – although, honestly, he seems to just be responsible for driving their van, smiling approvingly when they perform, and – of course – making out with Kelly.
When this fabulous foursome finally makes it out to Los Angeles, they meet up with music producer Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell (John LaZar), who is far and away the wildest, off-kilter character in a movie jam-packed with wild, off-kilter characters. Each of the band members goes off and finds themselves in relationships with new people in Hollywood, none of which ends well. Without giving too much away about the movie's violent climax (a hint of which we see in the movie's opening credits, although the primary villain isn't revealed until the conclusion), I will say that for a movie that's supposed to be a satirical send-up of the original film, 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' really dives into the horror genre during its final minutes – although some of those scenes are so goofy and over-the-top, it's hard not to laugh at them as well...which is most-likely what Meyer and Ebert intended.
Needless to say, there are a lot of female chests exposed in Meyer's film, although the movie never really felt exploitative to me...it's just too darn goofy to be considered that. Despite the 'X' rating it got in 1970 (and it's still slapped with an NC-17 here), it's pretty tame and probably should be rated 'R', although I'm guessing keeping the X/NC-17 assignment results in more and more people eventually checking out the movie to see what all the fuss is about.
This is one of those rare releases where the bonus materials and the information about the background and history of the movie are actually more of a reason to pick up this Blu-ray than the film itself. I did find the movie watchable, but not in a coherent way. It's too jumbled to be considered a good movie, but the direction by Meyer and some of the dialogue by Ebert is so frenetic, I can't say the movie doesn't have any value as entertainment, either. This is not something I'm likely to watch repeatedly, but I can see myself pulling it off the shelf every few years for a viewing. It's a wild trip, man.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' gets groovy on Blu-ray in this Criterion Collection release. The 50GB disc comes housed inside a clear Scanavo keepcase, along with a cool 32-page booklet featuring essays by rogerebert.com writer Glenn Kenny and TV screenwriter Stan Berkowitz. There are no front-loaded trailers or advertisements on the Blu-ray, whose menu design follows the standard Criterion layout – with selections vertically down the left side of the screen, which open up toward the right when selected to show more information/options. A montage of footage from the movie takes up the remainder of the screen.
The Blu-ray in this release is Region A locked.
'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' was shot on 35mm film and the transfer here is from a 35mm interpositive taken from the original camera negative. The movie is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The most impressive thing about the transfer is how clean it looks. Nary a hint of dirt, debris, or defects appear on the image. In fact, the only real issue is that some establishing shots (most likely stock footage) appear slightly out of focus, but that's almost certainly an issue with the original print. As those who have seen the movie before already know, the color palette of 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' is expansive – capturing all the various bright tones and shades of the late 60s/early 70s (the movie was released in 1970). Thankfully, none of it is oversaturated here, and the transfer has a natural, film-like look to it. Grain is evident, although nicely pushed to the background of most shots. Black levels are solid, although not quite inky deep. There's a slight softness to the look of the movie, but detail is overall pretty impressive for a film of this age. My guess is fans of the movie should be quite pleased with what they are given here.
The only track here is a linear PCM 1.0 mono track that sounds pretty good (as mono tracks go) and is free from any popping and hissing, although it's not quite as crisp as a I would hope, particularly when it comes to the spoken word. While I wouldn't go as far as to call the dialogue 'muddy', it doesn't have the distinctiveness one hopes to hear. Still, one won't have any problem making out the dialogue or understanding what is being said.
While the audio here certainly is a good rendition of how the film originally sounded in theaters (the track was remastered from the 35mm magnetic track), it would have been fun to hear how a stereo mix may have sounded – particularly since so much music is present in the film. Of course, that would have probably involved the kind of time and investment neither 20th Century Fox nor Criterion were willing to make for what is still ultimately a cult movie with a somewhat small following.
English subtitles are available.
- Audio Commentary with Roger Ebert – This is an archival 2003 commentary track from the late renowned film critic. If you haven't heard this track from earlier releases of this movie (either the 2006 DVD or the Region B Blu-ray), you're in for a real treat. Ebert is wildly entertaining without ever being condescending to a movie that I'm sure didn't quite turn out the way he hoped (Ebert wrote the screenplay and shares story credit with Russ Meyer). This may not be a new bonus feature, but it's still one of the highlights of this release.
- Cast Commentary – This is an archival track from 2006 featuring stars Dolly Read, Cynthia Meyers, John LaZar, Erica Gavin, and Harrison Page. This is more of a congratulatory commentary track between the actors as they complement each other and make jokes, but we do get a few fun behind-the-scenes stories along the way.
- Above, Beneath, & Beyond the Valley (SD, 30 min.) – This is an archival 2006 behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie, featuring comments from members of the cast and crew – including Roger Ebert.
- Beyond the Beyond (HD, 30 min.) – A brand-new interview with filmmaker John Waters, who discusses both the movie and the career of Russ Meyer overall, including some of their personal interactions. This is great stuff and highly entertaining to watch.
- Look on Up at the Bottom (SD, 11 min.) – This featurette from 2006 takes a look at the music in 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls'.
- Sex Drugs Music & Murder (SD, 7 ½ min.) – A featurette on how the movie reflected the look and feel of the culture in the late 60s/early 70s, including the Manson Family murders of 1969, from which 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' mirrors its final act.
- The Best of 'Beyond' (SD, 12 min.) – This featurette takes a look at all the memorable things about the movie, including – yep – the breasts!
- Casey & Roxanne: The Love Scene (SD, 1 ½ min.) – Actresses Cynthia Meyers and Erica Gavin recall their love scene from the movie.
- Memories of Russ (SD, 8 min.) – Interview segments recorded in 2005 where actors Charles Napier, Harrison Page, Erica Gavin, and Haji, along with Meyer friend and collaborator Jim Ryan, talk about working with the famed director.
- The Incredibly Strange Film Show (SD, 38 min.) – This is a 1988 episode of the UK Channel 4 TV series, hosted by Jonathan Ross, in which he details the career of and interviews Russ Meyer.
- Cast and Crew Q&A (SD, 49 min.) – This is video footage from a 1990 UCLA Film & Television Archive screening of the movie, which was followed by a cast and crew panel featuring, among others, Russ Meyer, Roger Ebert, Dolly Read, and John LaZar. The footage here is in very poor condition, has a time code at the bottom, and appears to have been shot on a consumer-grade video camera, but it's still very much worth a look.
- Screen Tests (SD, 7 ½ min.) – A pair of original screen tests for the movie, first with Michael Blodgett and Cynthia Meyers, then with Harrison Page and Marcia McBroom.
- Trailers (HD, 8 ½ min.) – A selection of trailers, starting with a short, 12-second Teaser for 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls', then the original theatrical trailer (2 ½ min.), a behind-the-scenes trailer (2 min.), plus trailers for 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!' (2 ½ min.), and 'Vixen' (1 ½ min.).
This is one of those rare Blu-ray releases that is worth owning less for the movie itself, and more for the history behind the film conveyed in the bonus materials that are included on this disc. 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' will never be mistaken for a good film, but it's not difficult to see why it has become somewhat of a cult classic over the years. Recommended.
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