I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t a good movie.
I don’t know how much of a hot take that really is; while the movie is a cult classic and something of an institution, I’m not sure how many of the people that love it would go to the mattresses to argue that it is actually a good movie. Fun? Sure. Campy? You bet. But if you watch the movie objectively, it’s absolutely bonkers and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – and I say that as someone who enjoys the original but isn’t a fanatic about it. I didn’t actually watch Rocky Horror Picture Show until I was in graduate school, though I was aware of its existence long before that. My first time seeing it was on VH1 and it aired with all the audience participation prompts running across the bottom of the screen. I knew that people went wild for this movie at midnight showings, but as the end credits rolled I couldn’t help but to think to myself
I had to watch the movie a few more times to fully get into it and even know I prefer the first half of the movie far more than the second half; I’ll usually check out shortly after “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me,” since that’s when things get really weird (and they were already pretty weird).
When Fox announced that they were doing a remake of Rocky Horror, I immediately thought that was a questionable choice. Half of what makes Rocky Horror so fun is that it feels transgressive when you are watching it; it’s dirty and sexy and you feel a little naughty when you are watching it. So not only did FOX have a steep hill to climb in appeasing the film’s rabid fan base, I had no idea how they were going to pull this off on network TV – especially when I realized that it started at 8 pm. At that early hour, you can only push the envelope so far. They also weren’t doing this production live, which ran counter to the recent trend. Still, I was willing to watch with an open mind and give it a chance.
Unfortunately, what they put on air was exactly what I feared it would be – an over stylized, over sanitized, uneven attempt that never quite fully worked. Fox’s version played it too safe and almost felt conservative, which is not a word that anyone would normally associate with Rocky Horror.
Part of the charm of the original movie was that it felt like a small movie that wasn’t made with a whole lot of money. It was dark and gritty, which helped create a mood. Fox went in a completely different direction and added a lot of color and fancy sets and costumes to the mix, which kind of defeats the whole purpose. At the same time, they somehow also managed to make a lot of the costumes looks cheap and poorly made. This version of Rocky Horror was just a little too Disney-fied; I mean, if you are going to put Rocky in board shorts instead of briefs, I don’t even know why we’re doing this.
Perhaps my biggest problem with Fox’s Rocky Horror was Laverne Cox, who I sincerely like but who felt all wrong as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. I wasn’t sure if she could sing before this production and I’m still not sure since the vocals all sounded overproduced and sweetened. She looked way too glamorous for the role, at least as we’ve come to know it. I’m all for different interpretations and making a role your own, but it felt off every time that she was on stage – like she was channeling Grace Jones more than Dr. Frank-N-Furter. She just seemed out of league in this and there is a LOT of heavy lifting for her to do in Rocky Horror. She may have gotten all the words right and looked fabulous, but she never got the soul of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
And while I appreciated the attempt to give a nod to the audience participation aspect of the movie, randomly inserting scenes of a “rowdy” theater watching this version of Rocky Horror Picture Show just didn’t work. They needed to fully commit to the idea or not do it; the theater shots were so sparsely inserted that they felt forced and, if you weren’t already familiar with Rocky Horror, baffling. This would have been the perfect place to have a live audience reacting to breathe some life into the production; the theater scenes were a noble effort but were flat.
There were some bright spots; I really enjoyed Annaleigh Ashford’s Columbia really worked for me. She was one of the only people in the show that I felt really “got” what Rocky Horror is supposed to be. She was delightfully weird and I was always happy when she was on screen. Pro-tip – always litter these TV musicals with as many Broadway performers as you can. They may not have the mainstream name recognition, but they are going to greatly improve your production. I also thought that Ryan MacCartan (Brad) and Victoria Justice (Janet) did a fairly nice job, especially the former who got Brad’s transformation in the latter part of the show. And Adam Lambert is always an upgrade over Meatloaf, no matter the context.
The big problem here is that Fox wanted to remake a cult classic but for a mass audience. Rocky Horror Picture Show is meant to be consumed at midnight in a theater in the questionable part of town, not immediately after Jeopardy! By putting this on network TV, they were forced to round off all of Rocky Horror’s rough edges – and the entire musical is rough edges. A neutered Rocky Horror Picture Show completely misses the point. If you can watch Rocky Horror on network TV, then you aren’t really watching Rocky Horror. This was a tremendous swing and a miss; the only good that will come of this is that perhaps some people who haven’t already seen it will seek out the original movie.