Brian Farnham and Jon Scoffield (director)
Network on Air (studio)
27 March 2017 (released)
18 April 2017
This BAFTA-winning musical drama charting the trials and tribulations of an all-female rock band during the 1970’s proved to be a huge success upon its initial release and thanks to Howard Schuman’s witty dialogue and lyrics stands the test of time. Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay was responsible for the songs and the real surprise here is that none of the tracks offer a particularly memorable tune nor what this reviewer would call scorching rock. Nonetheless, back in the day the soundtrack album reached Nr. 1 in the UK charts.
At a time when the USA could already pride itself in dishing out bona fide female rock bands such The Runaways feat. Joan Jett, or Blondie feat. Debbie Harry, or indeed the Patti Smith Group, back in Old Blighty we encounter three ambitious actresses dreaming of better times. Ok, this is fictional of course. They are tomboyish Dee (Julie Covington), idealistic and somewhat neurotic Anna (Charlotte Cornwell) and posh totty Nancy ‘Q’ Cunard de Longchamps (Rula Lenska). While the tree dames couldn’t be more different and initially don’t see eye to eye, after a disastrous production of the musical ‘Broadway Annie’ there is one element that sees the forming a close bond. The ‘element’ in question is the production’s flamboyant musical director Derek Huggins (Emlyn Price) who urges the frustrated actresses to consider a career change and form a rock band instead! Easier said than done… Derek’s composing skills on the piano steer strongly direction boogie-woogie rather than rock ‘n’ roll and all in all, our three dames are pretty clueless with regards to image and attitude. At least Julie Covington can sing, something that can’t be said for Rula Lenska. As if early rehearsals etc. aren’t demanding enough the girls also encounter their fare share of domestic problems. Dee is in a relationship with Spike (Billy Murray), a member of the free-thinking commune the couple live with, and despite declaring his love for her has the wandering eye. Anna, meanwhile, is in a relationship with Jack (Stephen Moore) – a daydreamer and idealistic idiot more interested in saving the world and sticking his nose into philosophical books than paying Anna the attention she deserves. Q, on the other hand, isn’t in any particular relationship and with her penchant for elegance and decadence it quickly emerges that here is a lady very much in control of her own sexuality. She also does a bit of soft porn acting on the side in order to pay the bills, though is only too aware that this is not the career move that will put her on the map.
After much debating and disagreements the female trio call themselves ‘The Little Ladies’ – a deliberately ironical choice of name as their attitudes and songs (apparently) stand in stark contrast to ladylike behaviour. That much might be true in the case of feisty Dee but Q still loves her little indulgences, her champagne and finger food and her glamorous outfits which are more suited to 1920’s Weimar Berlin. Over the course of six episodes we encounter various characters such as music journos (remember the NME?), pub bands and potential lovers. Forever changing musical directions and their image too, yet another deal is struck with Greek entrepreneur Stavros (Michael Angelis), much to the chagrin of Derek. Testing various ideas and without a single one being a success, Stavros then proposes a radical image change which sees The Little Ladies catapulted back to WW2 London, where a new club/restaurant called The Blitz announces the band, this time performing a pastiche of The Andrew Sisters while guests can gorge on wartime delicacies such as powdered eggs. During the opening night, a real bomb goes off however and the premises are destroyed while the guests flee in panic. It turns out Stavros’ mother had her hands in the sabotage act, all to do with an insurance scam. Once again, the promising career of The Little Ladies is in tatters and so is Dee’s commune when it emerges that the commune leader is in fact a greedy property owner… which makes him… a capitalist!
Forward to 1977 and our little ladies are still at it, weaving dreams and plans on how to finally crack the fickle rock biz. Well-meaning but ultimately useless previous manager Derek seems to have left the building for good and so the gals find themselves without any management. Enter Harry Moon (Derek Thompson), an avid fan and a songwriter in his own right who eventually bamboozles the band into letting him compose songs for them, although at that point the girls are responsible for writing much of their own material. In order to make ends meet the band agree to a musical commercial for frozen food (another turkey on the horizon) before Moon arranges a meeting between the Little Ladies and established rock star Stevie Streeter (Tim Curry), a bit of a megalomaniac to say the least! Streeter agrees to have The Little Ladies for his touring support band but quickly grows paranoid when he senses their talent and energy, prompting him to sabotage their sound checks and rehearsals… resulting in a disastrous opening night for our heroines. Fairness wins, however, when Streeter’s loudmouth American manager Kitty Schreiber (Beth Porter) drops him and signs up the Little Ladies to the SM Record Label.
Schreiber’s assistant Sandra LeMon is played by Little Nell who, two years earlier, starred as ‘Columbia’ in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which made a household name out of Tim Curry). There are nods to the success of Rocky Horror, for example when Sandra performs a little tap dance on the office desk during a party and the office wall is decorated with posters featuring the iconic Rocky Horror red lips logo. Once again it’s trial and error and a few ill advised tours before Kitty strikes yet another deal for her protégés, this time with vile entrepreneur Johnny Britten (Bob Hoskins).
The Little Ladies finally come into their own and are offered a huge recording session in a Camden studio, however, during the session it becomes apparent just how little the ladies now about the technical jargon. There are also different opinions when it comes to lyrics. While Anna composes a song with more meaningful lyrics but not exactly a catchy tune, the commercially orientated Kitty favours Dee’s more light hearted pop tune and this spells the beginning of an increasing rift between Dee and Anna. Kitty is only too aware of Anna’s and Q’s vocal limitations and insists that the Little Ladies need more vocal power, so a former acquaintance of Dee’s called Rox (Sue Jones-Davies) is taken aboard to support Dee during live performances… something that leaves Q paranoid and eventually leads to Anna leaving the band for good. With Rox aboard, the Little Ladies finally gain the recognition they deserve though Dee begins to feel guilty over her spat with Anna, who in the meantime has embarked on a solo-career with new Jamaican lover Angel (Trevor Ward), dope-smoking and rocking hard. Some time later Q also leaves the Little Ladies and it’s now only Dee and Rox who have just struck up a deal to perform in New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden. In a final fantasy sequence, Dee sees herself on stage flanked by former band mates Anna and Q.
The two Rock Follies series (Rock Follies and Rock Follies of ’77) are great fun to watch while providing a pretty accurate portrait of the (rock) music biz. Covington, Cornwell and Lenska complement each other perfectly because they are such different characters, and of course the satirical lyrics and dialogue are ace! Particularly great are the unique (for its time) experimental styles of filming and the countless musical numbers performed amid highly imaginative sets. All the support cast and remaining main cast are flawless, in particular Tim Curry as bitchy rock egotist Stevie Streeter and the late Bob Hoskins as shady entrepreneur Britten. Rock on!