It is a crying shame that no-one at Universal/MCA wised up and released this title, after the success of the Chuck Barris bio-pic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. True, The Gong Show Movie may not be as polished as the later film, but this too emerges as a telling portrait of "Gong Show" host Chuck Barris. And despite the fact that this bloated home movie stars Barris before and behind the camera (he even co-wrote the script with underground legend Robert Downey Sr., of all people), this movie is not a self-congratulatory ego trip.
This almost plotless movie instead features Barris as a world-weary, disillusioned screw-up. The story, such as it is, peripherally concerns his rocky relationship with his girlfriend (Robin Altman), or his consistent badgering by his producer over the show's sagging ratings. Every once in a while, Chuck decides to screw it all and jam with his country-and-western band! But otherwise, this blur of a movie deals with Barris and his uneasy kinship with the losers which nonetheless feed his career.
Amusingly, just like Alan Freed in American Hot Wax, he is virtually accosted in every other scene by some hopeful lowlife with some half-baked act for fleeting stardom. (Even a passerby wino auditions for him!) Like Phil Tucker's no-budget Broadway Jungle, this is a rare film which so callously explores/exploits hapless no-talents and their pathetic bids for fame; both films suggest that their creators are among them.
Finally, Chuck takes off to find sanctuary in the African desert, then the film morphs into a bizarre musical as his co-stars appear to tell him how much they need him! Now there is no doubt- Chuck Barris and these pathetic morons are co-dependent. This is why the film is filled with so many impressionistic bits of these contestants on and offstage-- "The
Gong Show" is their lifeblood, too; this movie is equally about them. Suddenly, all of the ragged unfocused moments in this desperate movie begin to make sense.
The weakest aspect of this comedy is that the gags are predictable. However, once in a while, there is a second gag thrown on top which makes for some special moments. For example, The Unknown Comic wakes up in the morning with a bag over his head, as does (predictably) the girl in bed next to him. Then, unexpectedly, the camera pans up to see a painting of him in the nude, with a paper bag covering a certain part of his anatomy!
Plus, the film has extraneous segments of "Gong Show" contestants on the air, in longer, randier sequences most assuredly cut for original broadcast. Most famously, the ubiquitous Jaye P. Morgan bares her breasts. These overlong, wheezy moments nonetheless illustrate Barris' out-of-control lifestyle.
For all of its misfires and tired gags, The Gong Show Movie nonetheless remains one of the boldest acts of career suicide since The Monkees' Head, and perhaps unexpectedly, one of the most telling portraits of neurosis among celebrity life.
(adapted from a review originally published in ESR #9)