The Rocky Horror Picture Show: dammit Janet, it doesn’t quite work

Solid performances, but the meta presentation is muddled and the decadence has been fatally dialed down – even Rocky’s no longer in a tight, gold Speedo

I have seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the 1975 cult classic that still plays weekly in movie houses across the world, more than I have seen any other movie. I know the lyrics to all the songs, most of the dialogue by heart, and have immersed myself in the culture of the live performances. When Fox announced it was remaking the film for television (under the clunky title The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again) I was excited that new fans would find this treasure I’ve loved for decades, but also petrified that director Kenny Ortega (High School Musical) might destroy it. He certainly hasn’t done that, but he hasn’t done much to amplify or re-evaluate the campy sci-fi-tinged musical either.

As always, this is the story of young square lovers Brad (Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice) who want to celebrate their recent engagement with their mentor turned friend Dr Scott (Ben Vereen). On the way to his house they get a flat tire and wander into the castle of Dr Frank-N-Furter (Laverne Cox). Along with her butler Riff Raff (Reeve Carney), maid Magenta (Christina Milian), and entertainer Columbia (Annaleigh Ashford), the self-described sweet transvestite is having a party to celebrate the birth of Rocky (Staz Nair), a musclebound mute she created for her sexual gratification.

Trapped in a world of fluid sexuality and total excess, Brad and Janet begin to question their devotion not only to each other but also to adhering to the social norms they previously felt were so important.

It’s that excess integral to the show’s deeper meaning that is the biggest problem here. There is something about the entire production that seems a bit slight. When Brad and Janet first show up at Frank-N-Furter’s castle, they’re ushered not into a grand entryway, but a tiny antechamber with ceilings no higher than the average Manhattan apartment and decor that is just as cluttered. When they go into the next room to perform the signature dance, the Time Warp, it seems like they’re in a high school gymnasium rather than a grand ballroom. It’s hard to make a case for the intoxicating effects of decadence when it has all the transgressive charge of an extra scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The biggest change that Ortega makes is to turn Frank’s castle into a movie theater. The show opens with the song Science Fiction Double Feature, sung not by a pair of disembodied lips but by the usher (Ivy Levan) at a movie house, which is later the same cinema Brad and Janet stumble into. It seems like he wants to conflate the film and the audience watching it (which allows for some of the show’s famous audience participation to be included in the action). Ortega wants us to feel like we’re all part of a collective audience watching this film but also as if we’re an audience watching another audience watching a film … or maybe we’re in the audience watching the film being performed in the theater. I’m not sure, it’s muddled and not entirely thought through.

While this postmodern approach is an intellectually interesting endeavor, Ortega never really does anything with it. In fact, because the sets look a bit shabby, the costumes a bit slapdash, and the wigs (sweet Judy Garland’s ghost, the wigs!) are a fright, it seems like this remake is actually created by one of those shadow casts. However, the idea isn’t fully explored and the sets and costumes exist in a weird netherworld where they’re not ornate enough to be as fabulous as the originals but also not quite bad enough to be campy.

Since it’s being shown on broadcast television, the show also had to be sanitized. Gone is a fair amount of the overt sexuality, the allusions to cannibalism, a sexual relationship between Riff Raff and his sister Magenta, and, saddest of all, Rocky’s glorious gold Speedo that’s so skimpy even Tom Daley would think twice about wearing it in public. Instead Rocky is wearing what appears to be lamé basketball shorts. For shame!

There are some other, er, rocky transitions to television, particularly cutting up scenes to allow commercial breaks. This is especially true in the finale when the floor-show set piece is robbed of its momentum. However, I was impressed that Ortega managed to shave 10 minutes off the running time (though it runs two hours with commercials) without seeming to sacrifice any of the material. All the songs and most of the major incidents are present and correct. Some tightening has been achieved by slightly upping the tempo of some of the numbers, most notably There’s a Light, but this actually improves them.

It’s not as if this recreation is a total disaster. It’s still a great script with great music and some of the performances are just as good, if not better than, the original. Carney and Milian as Riff Raff and Magenta (their costumes in the finale are a vast improvement over the silly originals) and McCartan and Justice as Brad and Janet are all good. Adam Lambert plays the small but key role of Eddie originated by Meatloaf and manages to deliver what should be considered the definitive version of Hot Patootie Bless My Soul.

I was nervous that Cox wouldn’t have the voice to pull off Frank, but her singing is the highlight of the role. As originated by the genius Tim Curry (who plays the narrating criminologist here) Frank is a delicate blend of zaniness, menace, desire, vulnerability and sarcasm. Unfortunately Cox can’t manage to get the alchemy right. She never quite gets a handle on whom she wants the character to be, and her readings of some iconic lines falter without intention. It’s not that she needs to play them just like Curry, but the characterization has no consistency.

Faithful, fast-paced, and largely entertaining, this new Rocky Horror Picture Show is neither the calamity fans like myself were fearing nor the triumph that we were all hoping for. While some of its interpretations don’t quite hit the mark, it is still good enough to get first-time viewers pumped to see the original movie. They’ll be doing the Time Warp again, but it will feel like the very first time.

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