Roller Boogie (1979)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Roller Boogie is a bit of an anomaly in the world of B-movies, in that the film was actually relatively popular and commercially successful when it was released at the end of 1979. Unfortunately, popularity is not always a signifier of quality. At the same time, the film’s so-bad-it’s-good reputation is arguably the one and only reason it is remembered at all. After all, had the film even been regarded as just another mediocre popcorn flick featuring disenfranchised ’70s youth, Roller Boogie would have withered and died as abruptly as the disco-skating fad the film was engineered to exploit. Luckily, for generations of fans who love truly bad movies, Roller Boogie is a cinematic turd-on-wheels so epically inept its position in the pantheon of B-movie treasures is assured.
A surprising number of now-classic B-movies either tell simplistic stories that reflect a social trend associated with American youth, or they simply string together a series of easily recognizable narrative clichés. Roller Boogie manages to do both. Audiences are treated to (or subjected to) countless roller-dancing sequences set to an assaultive soundtrack of disco tunes that almost never stops. Without these sequences, the film would be approximately seven minutes long. But the most astounding thing about Roller Boogie is the sheer volume of clichés employed within the story structure; in fact, the film unfolds—literally—in one pot-boiled, contrived character trope and story cliché after another until it finally collapses beneath the weight of its own predictability.
At the core of Roller Boogie is a tale of budding romance between Terry, a spoiled rich girl who wants to rebel against her uppity conservative parents by immersing herself in the local roller-disco culture, and Bobby, a scrappy poor boy from the wrong side of town who just happens to be the best skater on the boardwalk. Believe it or not, these two star-crossed lovers don’t really get along at first. To make things worse, Terry’s snooty upper-class friends and Bobby’s uncouth working-class friends don’t get along, either. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Terry’s parents want her to settle down with—gasp!—a preppie little letch from a wealthy family named Franklin. But before long, Terry and Bobby fall prey to their throbbing teen libidos—class differences be damned! Bobby accepts Terry’s request to teach her how to roll like a champ, and after an extended montage of training mishaps, they decide to partner-up and enter the roller boogie contest at Jammers, the local skating rink owned by a beloved former roller derby legend. But wait … Just as things are starting to go well for Terry and Bobby, they overhear a conversation between Jammer and some generic thugs. Turns out, the thugs want to turn Jammer’s rink into—get this—a shopping mall, and they threaten to burn the place down (even if it’s filled with innocent kids) if poor Jammer doesn’t agree to their terms. Will Jammer sell out? Is the roller boogie contest cancelled? Will Terry and Bobby survive as a couple? Will Terry’s parents learn some important lessons about acceptance?
Do you really have to ask?
As the movie hurtles toward its inevitable conclusion, we are assailed by one mind-numbingly predictable moment after another. Take, for example, a scene in which Bobby and his working-class friends attend a fancy-schmancy recital (Terry is supposedly a genius flautist) on the perfectly manicured grounds of Terry’s family mansion. Of course, Bobby’s friends don’t fit in with this crowd, and every awkward joke and embarrassing moment is easily anticipated by the audience. Hors d’oeuvres are devoured with gluttonous glee, the word hors d’oeuvres is mispronounced, a comedic chase through the crowd ensues, masses of formally dressed people are knocked into the swimming pool, and, of course, someone face-plants directly into a decorative, multi-tiered cake. This scene is a perfect representation of the film as a whole. There is simply not one single moment of narrative innovation to be found in this movie.
Equally amazing is the film’s total lack of subtext. Every word, every intention, every moment is made perfectly clear through the use of exaggerated facial expressions, audible sighs, and clunky expositional dialogue. In one scene, to prove that the musical prodigy Terry is bored by her life of privilege, she exasperatedly exclaims, “So what! I’m a musical genius. What a drag! What a bummer!” Later in that same scene, Terry’s mother makes a hasty exit after hearing of Terry’s desire to win a roller boogie contest at the beach. Terry sits alone in the silence of the now-empty house, stares forlornly into the distance and says to absolutely no one: “She didn’t understand a thing I said.” The film goes out of its way to fill every moment with stilted dialogue, loud music, skating/action scenes, or a cacophonous combination of all of the above. We are never invited to intuit what the characters are feeling in quiet moments; instead, we are always told, point blank.
All in all, Roller Boogie is so bad you can’t believe that you’re actually watching it, and yet you can’t stop watching it because you’re having so much fun finding out just how much worse it can get. And, like virtually every great B-movie, Roller Boogie is fun to watch because of its shortcomings, rather than in spite of them. As Terry, Linda Blair does her damndest to erase the grotesque, split pea soup-spewing image she inadvertently cultivated as the bedeviled Regan in The Exorcist, and she mostly succeeds. The problems with her character are clearly not her fault. The same can be said for Jim Bray as Bobby. Bray is one of the most talented and accomplished skaters ever to lace ’em up. It does, however, become quite clear quite quickly that he is not a professional actor, but that, too, is not his fault, and, to be fair, every scene that features his skating is infectiously fun to watch (the guy really is an exceptionally talented skater). Roller Boogie may not work as a drama, a character study, or even as a realistic representation of the skate culture of that era, but it does capture the atmosphere and energy of summer nights at the roller rink in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and if that isn’t good enough for some people, they probably shouldn’t be watching a movie called Roller Boogie in the first place.