When the film Americathon premiered, its opening sequence featured a clip of President Jimmy Carter giving a speech about an energy crisis. Narrator George Carlin breaks in saying “When America finally ran out of gas, an angry mob broke into the White House and lynched him.”
So began a zany, if prophetic, movie set in 1998. The opening song, It’s A Beautiful Day, was sung by The Beach Boys, who, the audience is informed, have been at the top for 40 years. “Roller-skating, joggin’ or fancy bike,” they beamed, “you can get around most anyway you like.” With sunshine-sharp harmonies, the lyrics looked to a time when the USA had no oil left, people lived in cars rather than drove them and bikes and roller skates were the only way to get around.
The film, bizarre beyond belief yet accurate in several of its predictions was the idea of Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman of Los Angeles’ experimental comedy ensemble (and Goon Show fans) The Firesign Theatre. Bergman had won his place in rock history by coining the phrase “love-in” in 1967, and ran the first such event in Los Angeles that year, when some 65,000 people turned up and turned on and traffic blocked the freeways for miles.
Gary Usher, then a staff producer at Columbia Records, was impressed and offered the Firesign Theatre their first recording contract. Albums like Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers (1970) and Not Insane (1972) followed and in 1978 their play Americathon became a stage show. Soon after Director Neal Israel set about turning Proctor and Bergman’s satirical conceit into a fully-fledged cinematic offering, one boasting a cast that included John Ritter, Harvey Korman, Peter Riegert, Cybill Shepherd, Zane Busby, Jay Leno and Meat Loaf.
Israel was on a high at the time, having just scripted Ringo Starr’s 1978 TV Special, a programme that not only featured Ringo as himself plus his fictional brother Ognir Rrats but also George Harrison, Vincent Price, Carrie Fisher and Dr. John, plus music director Jimmy Webb.
But as far as Americathon was concerned, things didn’t quite work out. Proctor and Bergman soon bowed out, leaving other screenwriters to reshape much of the original plot. A plot, such as it was, which involved the US President, having sold off the White House and living in a condo named The Western White House, running a non-stop 30-day telethon to pay $400 billion and stave off foreclosure by billionaire Sam Birdwater (played by Chief Dan George) who’s in control of the National Indian Knitting Enterprise, otherwise known as NIKE.
Among the acts signed to save America were Oklahoma Daredevil Roy Budnitz Meat Loaf), who bravely jousts with the last working car in the land. For his part, Larry ‘Poopy Butt’ Miller (Jay Leno) fights his own mother in the boxing ring, while by satellite from ‘Limeyland’ where 10 Downing Street has become Thatcher’s Disco, there’s a sequence featuring the Earl of Manchester (Elvis Costello) singing Crawling To America to small crowd.
When the dust settled, Columbia released a soundtrack LP featuring The Beach Boys, Costello, Nick Lowe, Eddie Money and musical director Tom Scott. But few boasted about their participation. Jay Leno later told the Boston Globe: “It was so terrible I had to leave the theatre,” while John Ritter told Hollywood columnist Marilyn Beck: “When I saw it, I remember smiling during the opening credits, then the smile faded and pretty soon my mouth was down to my chin.”
The critics also pilloried the wayward project, the late Roger Ebert advising, “If you plan to miss this movie, better miss it quickly; I doubt if it’ll be around to miss for long.”
So spare a thought for a film whose main characters eventually patch up their differences and move to Vietnam to create a religion based on the songs of Donna Summer – and which, it must be remembered, forecast China becoming a capitalistic global force, the US tottering on the edge of bankruptcy, and Nike becoming an international conglomerate. A glass should also be raised to one Ted Coombs, who roller-skated across the whole USA and back to promote the movie and gain a place in the Guinness Book Of Records.