Bye Bye Birdie April 16, 2018
Dick Van Dyke
1 Hr., 50 Mins.
uring the seventh episode of Cocaine & Rhinestones (2017-present), a new, Tyler Mahan Coe-produced podcast detailing the forgotten histories of 20th-century country music, we are transported to 1968. The single “Harper Valley PTA,” sung by the newcomer Jeannie C. Riley, has become a major hit. It is the “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967), the “The Pill" (1975), of that year — a distinctly female, genre-defyingly forward-thinking piece of music instantaneously beloved by a populace fed up with small-town conservatism and hypocrisy.
Simply listen to the song without any sort of background to guide you and you might consider Riley a feminist icon – a Nancy Sinatra of country music, with her mini-skirts, her liberal attitude, and her brash individuality. I know I did. Yet in this particular episode, which is the first chapter in a three-part saga, Coe reveals that, if anything, Riley was a manipulatable commodity, a cipher. The song was written by the prolific writer Tom T. Hall; the single was released by Plantation Records, which was trying to capitalize on the minimalist, narrative-driven style of country in fashion at the time thanks to women like Loretta Lynn and Bobbie Gentry. Riley, though talented and capable, was viewed by industry execs as a pretty face who could help keep their pockets full.
I doubt radio listeners of ’68 knew any of these behind-the-scenes details. They probably enjoyed “Harper Valley PTA” in the same way I had initially, receptive toward what they were listening to and quick to revere Riley as a symbol of transition in an increasingly progressive America. This makes sense: As consumers, we don't usually polish off the types of media we like with a certain amount of unease. If we’re fond of something, we’re prone to believing that our becoming acquainted with it were more miraculous than purposeful and manipulative. Unless the string-pulling’s obvious — then we’re likelier to meet something with a raised eyebrow.
While watching George Sidney’s Bye Bye Birdie (1963), a music industry satire, I couldn’t help but think of Riley and these specific episodes of Cocaine & Rhinestones. So much of what goes on parallels what Coe talks about: industry-scheming and blueprinting comprise much of the action; the titular Birdie is viewed as little more than a product; the public has no idea just how much of what they’re seeing and listening to has essentially been thought up in a lab; everyone, except maybe consumers, is obsessed with getting ahead.
Granted, Bye Bye Birdie is not a dispiriting piece of music history in the way the making and aftermath of the release of “Harper Valley PTA” was and is. It is a jubilant, colorful musical, meant to be escapist and wholesomely entertaining.
But arguably, its relatively uncontaminated pomp is what makes it so flavorless by comparison. The cautionary tale that is the Riley saga is so riveting because it so dishearteningly exemplifies the incongruity between the public and the industry that keeps it entertained. While we enjoy, they plot.
At the outset, Bye Bye Birdie seems inclined to satirize this demoralizing reality. It is about the military drafting of the matinée idol Conrad Birdie (Jesse Pearson) and a pair of money-minded industry types (Dick Van Dyke and Janet Leigh) who stage a contest that will help them financially mooch off him one last time before he begins serving the country.
The feature, then, suggests it’s going to be a superlatively cynical one. The storyline obviously takes inspiration from Elvis Presley’s drafting in the late ‘50s, and is gleeful in the way it makes fun of the melodramas and short-sightedness of teenage popular culture. The Van Dyke and Leigh characters, also lovers, are introduced with dollars in their eyes: the former’s a songwriter who just wants Birdie to make his latest piece a hit; the latter, though officially a secretary, is business-brained and desperate to figure out how to up the company’s financial power.
But after some time, it becomes clear cut that everyone involved in the making of Bye Bye Birdie, which was based on a popular stage play, abhors the thought of keeping its satire prickly. The previously mentioned contest involves someone from a Birdie fan club getting the chance to kiss the crooner on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-’71), and this necessitates the characters travel to Sweet Apple, Ohio, where the contest’s winner, a redheaded teen named Kim (Ann-Margret), lives. Then the film restates its cinematic ambitions. It will become a trite romantic comedy per the various problems Van Dyke and Leigh run into; it will riff on the teen beach movies and Sandra Dee vehicles of the era by closing in on Kim’s foolhardy inner life.
Neither genre imitation is very interesting. Bye Bye Birdie is at its most engaging during its first act, when it’s still most concerned with sizing down the entertainment industry à la Josie and the Pussycats (2001). Once the primary setting shifts to Sweet Apple, the film incessantly meanders in order to reach the end point of its 110-minute running time, the eye-catchingly artificial musical numbers tedious and the by-the-numbers subplots even more so.
If it weren’t for the vivacious Leigh (though head-scratchingly cast as a Latin-American) and the nuclear newcomer Ann-Margret (who solidifies her star status during a frantic musical sequence during which she dons a bodycon, hot-pink jumpsuit), the movie’d be a disappointment. With their help, it’s a lively, enthusiastic letdown. Which still doesn’t make it all that great, but nonetheless keeps much of it savory At least the fictional Birdie knows what it’s like to be fawned over without any questions thrown his way. But we're inclined to think even Jeannie C. Riley was more aware of herself than Bye Bye Birdie is of itself. And she wasn't. C