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John McCarron on Little Shop of Horrors
In the dvd audio commentary for Little Shop of Horrors, director Frank Oz maintains that the “style” of the three black chanteuses who comprise the doo-wop Greek chorus was a major element that attracted him to the material. What one also learns about the movie version of the off-Broadway cult-musical is that the Broadway ending (which features its two white protagonists being eaten by a King Kong-sized venus fly trap, who continues his domination of the planet by sacking one major city after another) was indeed shot by Oz who, along with the great lyricist, Howard Ashman, was determined to be faithful to the original, “darker” ending. When it was screen tested for audiences, however, they were predictably appalled. Producer David Geffen, convinced Oz to reshoot a happier ending where Seymour saves the girl and electrocutes the evil plant—a 2 million dollar-plus decision Oz vindicates through a Brechtian contention that audiences in a theater “expect to see the main characters in the curtain call” whereas in film, there is no curtain call, making tragedy more potent, more final. The implication here is that musical plus tragedy does not equal a satisfied ticket purchaser, and unsatisfied audiences certainly do not add up to box office success. This is a reasonable business argument, I guess, but this economic-based rationalization for the change of ending seems to mask a more troubling possibility.
Watching the film with Oz’s commentary track, one notices a pattern of adjectives employed when recalling his direction of the doo-wop girls (Ronette, Chiffon, and Crystal) and the voice of the plant. Repeatedly he talks of how important it was for the girls to play it “dark” and “sensuous,” and for the plant to play it “darker” and more “demonic.” Adjectives like these found widespread employment in late 19th-century ethnography, and again were recycled in advertisements for Fifties B-movies set on the light-challenged continent. Though it’s hard to outright accuse Oz of actively perpetuating racism, these tell-tale slips, and his insistence on exaggerating the Motown aspects of the three girls and the svengali qualities of Audrey II seem a light mask for the white fear of a black threat ready to corrupt the safe (clean, pure—the adjective war could go on) American dream. When weighing Audrey II and the doo-wop girls against the cartoonishly antiseptic suburbia about which the protagonists fantasize, the fight against the plant takes on epic proportion, and an unpleasant metaphorical cast.
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This friction is set up from the very start—over a deep space background, a 2001-esque symphonic drum dirge arises on the soundtrack and immediately deepens soulfully with a groovy Isaac Hayes-esque electric organ, effectively bringing the space-funk. A martian-green scroll unfurls into the black void as a ridiculously strident baritone narrates the prologue: Earth is about to face a threat to its very existence, a threat that is all the more fearsome because of its innocent appearance, namely, an especially tumescent looking venus fly trap. The alien invader metaphor, once so easily attributable to cold war paranoia, finds itself without a home in the late Eighties era of glasnost and perestroika, and like a parasite that’s just finished off its host, lands (during a surprise total eclipse of the sun, no less) in the form of an interplanetary virus with the smooth voice of a jive-talkin’ soul brother.
There’s no disputing the fact that the plant, Audrey II, voiced by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops, is coded as African American. He speaks in a fashion that white America has been conditioned (by Airplane!, Saturday Night Live, etc. though the application of this vernacular has deep-seated roots) to understand as jive, calling people “son” or “boy” with varying degrees of ironic derision. To me, Audrey II is a brother. And it’s not exactly breaking down the walls of stereotyping when the first thing Audrey II offers Seymour in his Faustian introductory song, “Feed Me,” is a Cadillac. Put his voice in the throat of Lawrence Welk and I’d call him black. Put it in Zsa Zsa Gabor’s and I’d still call him a black man. The point is that, in the film’s world, the biggest threat to the human race is basically a black man disguised as a man-eating plant. His sweet talking attitude embodies the ethos stated so succinctly by today’s dark prince of R&B, R. Kelly in “Doin’ It Big”: “I like the cash and clothes and chicks, oh yeah.” He’s a velvet-voiced seducer only in it for himself. At least one some level, that’s the way I believe the target audience for the film in 1986 probably perceived him and effectively threw the switch that electrocutes Audrey II in the eventual, more “democratically” accepted conclusion.
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The inclusion of all this R&B flavor and nostalgia was very progressive by Hollywood standards in 1986, coming a full year before Hollywood Shuffle, terrain that the Wayans brothers, and others have mined to often hilarious, sometimes dull effect ever since. The difference is that in Little Shop of Horrors it’s all executed unthinkingly, and, accordingly, sinister undercurrents from the mid-Eighties cultural landscape peek through. Fast-talking Eddie Murphy was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and would win a career achievement award by his 25th Birthday in 1987. Economic worries made affirmative action an easy target for “white”-collar workers losing their jobs. This was a time when rap was filtering out of the underground and censors were foaming at the mouth to put an end to it. Two years later white American boys would memorize the lyrics to N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” while the FBI was issuing warnings to Easy-E’s Ruthless Records in attempts to protect just those children from the “threat” of the music. Two years after that, Public Enemy directly faced the issue with the album “Fear of a Black Planet.” It’s telling that the final battle/song between Seymour and Audrey II (“Mean Green Mother From Outer Space”) nearly marches past the Motown spirit that infuses the rest of the film, almost attaining the more stripped-down sound of early hip-hop.
The most common reason for bringing a stage work to the screen, be it musical or otherwise, is the chance it offers to broaden the narrative and visual scope. But aside from a few impressive camera moves, Oz’s film feels very stagy, with lush sunsets painted behind rich layers of two- dimensional tenements and skyscrapers. In short, it seems the most attractive episode in the stage play to imagine on film was the apocalyptic ending. Indeed, the little footage that appears in a behind-the-scenes dvd bonus looks quite impressive: Audrey II was to become a building-sized hydra, tearing apart a city with its vine tendrils and ostensibly eating everyone it could along the way. As much fun as the plant is as a villain, it wasn’t enough for audiences to stand by and let it destroy the world, or the adorably nerdy white couple. I wonder what they would have thought if the voice belonged to, say, Jack Nicholson. Or even Bill Cosby.
Which leaves us with a film that is at its most fascinating when it channels the fear of a white America perceiving the world going “dark” all around them. I wonder if Frank Oz really enjoyed the cultural implications of his original ending, or was just enamored with the production design. In truth, I’m not sure I would have completely enjoyed the original ending either. It would be nice to see a studio film maliciously doom innocence and idealism to the whims of a hungry plant. But when it’s framed as a battle against the races, things get more complicated. What we’re left with is a classic case of “what if.” With the original ending intact, Little Shop of Horrors would have been oddly prescient in documenting the fear of a Kennedy-era couple devoured by a de-ghettoizing of black culture. Though neither ending takes the progressive stance of marking how much so many of the arbiters of pop white culture, especially in rock ‘n’ roll (Elvis, Buddy Holly) owe to African-American traditions, Little Shop of Horrors remains a fascinating, tuneful time capsule.