Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom, John Lazar, Michael Blodgett, David Gurian, Edy Williams, Erica Gavin, Phyllis Davis, Harrison Page, Duncan McLeod, James Iglehart, Charles Napier, Lavelle Roby, Haji, Pam Grier
Written by: Roger Ebert, based on a story by Roger Ebert, Russ Meyer
Directed by: Russ Meyer
MPAA Rating: NC-17
Running Time: 109
Date: 06/17/1970

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

3 Stars (out of 4)

This Is My Happening

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Exploitation director Russ Meyer was somehow invited to make a movie for 20th Century Fox, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was the result. (It's not technically a sequel to Valley of the Dolls, but it's deliberately meant to make moviegoers at least recall that awful hit.) Meyer's movie is not a typical mainstream release by any means; it's sheer insanity. It has beautiful, topless women (some of them Playboy playmates), but it's not very sexy. It has lots of great one-liners, but it's not exactly laugh-out-loud funny. It has lots of music, but it doesn't really make you want to dance. And it's a little psychedelic, but it makes you rather want to stay off drugs.

The plot involves a band called the Carrie Nations, whose members (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom), will do anything for a shot at the big time. This involves lots of debauchery, usually at the hands of rock promoter "Z-Man" (John Lazar), including many different brands of sex and drugs, as well as violence and murder. In Meyer's world, the men are more or less useless, and the women actually drive the plot, so at least they are not victims and can take charge of their own destinies.

Looking at the movie again on a spruced-up new Criterion Blu-ray release (2016), I'm reminded once again of just what an interesting and polished filmmaker Meyer was, despite his reputation as a maker of sleaze. Many have pointed out that he was a master of the montage, and perhaps Segei Eisenstein's true American heir. Though the movie has a feeling of reckless speed, the shots are always beautifully arranged and framed, colorful, and the editing precise and clear. Regardless of what you'd call it, or what your ultimate take is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a cinematic ride unlike anything else ever made.

The thing I was looking forward to more than anything else, however, was a shot at hearing the late Roger Ebert's commentary track, recorded back in 2003 before he lost the ability to speak. (He recorded six DVD commentary tracks before his death in 2013, all worth hearing.) This was his only produced screenplay in his long career as a respected film critic, and he talks in as much detail as he can remember about the entire production, from meeting Meyer to the movie's tumultuous release. I thought that, for sure, if anyone would know where Pam Grier was in the movie, he would, but he did not. (This is said to have been Grier's movie debut, and she's listed in the credits, but I have never been able to find her, and neither could Ebert.)

Other extras on the new release include a second commentary track from 2006 featuring actors Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Harrison Page, John LaZar, and Erica Gavin; a new featurette with filmmaker John Waters, several more interviews and short featurettes (all from previous releases), a 1988 episode of "The Incredibly Strange Film Show" on Meyer, trailers, and screen tests. The liner notes booklet contains a new essay by my esteemed colleague Glenn Kenny, and excerpts from a 1970 account in the UCLA Daily Bruin of a visit to the set. "This is my happening and it freaks me out!"

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