***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A-
starring Jo Johnston, Rainbeaux Smith, Colleen Camp, Rosanne Katon
written by Jane Witherspoon & Betty Conklin
directed by Jack Hill
by Bryant Frazer At some point during the free-for-all brawl that climaxes The Swinging Cheerleaders, I remember thinking to myself, "This has got to be one of the most American movies ever made." I was reacting in part to the iconography--cheerleaders fighting policeman fighting college footballers, almost in the manner of a silent comedy, as Scott Joplin plays on the soundtrack--but also to the mood of the film, in which converging themes of corruption and cynicism lead to an eruption of chaotic, comic violence, and open-hearted jocks make way for joyous optimism to prevail.
The Swinging Cheerleaders takes place in a world where feminism assumes facts about male chauvinism that are not in evidence, where leftist radicals are dishonest, rat-faced perverts, and where small-town athletes are not just lovers and fighters but the ultimate moral authority as well. But director Jack Hill is no right-wing conservative--his earlier films included the excellent blaxploitation standard-bearers Coffy and Foxy Brown, which amply exhibit his subversive bona fides. The Swinging Cheerleaders is about the dangers inherent in doing what you're told, in failing to question what you believe, and in underestimating the moral standing of your fellow man. Hell, it even features a still-surprising (and, to American society's great shame, still-relevant) scene, not played for comedy, where a crooked cop shoots an unarmed black man for no good reason. That's just to say that, in addition to any conservative bent, what The Swinging Cheerleaders really displays is an anti-authoritarian streak.
Let's begin at the beginning. The first question you might have about a sexploitation movie from the 1970s is, What kind of sexploitation will I be looking at? Well, as 1970s sex films go, this one is largely wholesome, starting with the opening titles. No garishly-bouncing jugs, no solicitous panty shots--just boundless youthful enthusiasm, thank you very much. While Hill does deliver lingering moments of nudity later on, the cheerleaders here truly are more than sex objects. Protagonist Kate (Jo Johnston) is a spunky journalism student at the fictional Mesa College whose blistering exposé is waiting to bust free of the constraints of her typewriter. The working title? She's already named it "The Swinging Cheerleaders" before getting another word on paper. Obviously inspired by Gloria Steinem's undercover profile of The Playboy Club, Kate plans to embed herself among the cheerleaders to report on their exploitation.
"Cheerleaders are nowhere, baby," warns her unlovable boyfriend, Ron (Ian Sander), a campus radical who makes dubious claims to have been beaten and abused by the police, the National Guard, and the Secret Service. Disregarding him, Kate aces her audition and quickly becomes friendly with squadmates Andrea (Rainbeaux Smith), Lisa (Rosanne Katon), and Mary Ann (Colleen Camp). She also learns a thing or two about the college jocks, who come across as overly confident womanizers but prove to be gentle giants if you just get to know them. ("You start talking like that to show off to your friends," one of them admits, a little sadly, "and it gets to be a habit.") Eventually, Kate decides her paper's assumptions are false and abandons her plans, but tensions rise as a romantic triangle forms between Kate, Mary Ann, and the star QB, virginal Andrea looks to finally get laid, and a corruption scandal threatens the highest echelons of campus society: the football team.
Hill, whose mother was a music teacher and whose father was an art director, was a much more tasteful director than necessary to do right by a film called The Swinging Cheerleaders. For evidence, consider its relentlessly porny predecessor The Cheerleaders, a popular compendium of ass shots, filthy leers, nude scenes, and simulated sex set to groovy library cues that dispenses with such fripperies as narrative and performance. Hill's visual style is unpretentious--there's a pretty slim budget for pizzazz on a 12-day shoot--but still imaginative. He moves the camera, but not too much. His go-to composition is the two-shot, and he knows a bunch of different ways to make one, from the usual over-the-shoulder angles to more statuesque pre-coital poses, or shots that smartly emphasize depth in the frame, like the one featuring Kate banging away at her typewriter on the left as Ron enters the frame from the back right that I'm going to insist was inspired by Citizen Kane. Cinematographer Alfred Taylor was no slouch, either, doing some genuinely intriguing things with colour and light on a breakneck schedule. I'm especially fond of a shot of Smith sitting up in bed with her boyfriend looking up at her from behind, as a bit of blue light splashes across her blonde hair, pushing it towards green in sharp contrast with his pinkish skin. This movie has moments with that kind of visual snap throughout. It's ridiculously easy to watch.
And while The Swinging Cheerleaders doesn't exactly feature world-class thespians, it does have a bunch of fun performers who are charming even with their clothes on. The gossamer Rainbeaux Smith is, as usual, a contradiction in terms--a delicate but riveting presence on screen who seems perpetually on the verge of disappearing in a tiny puff of wispy, golden hair. Jo Johnston, meanwhile, is some sort of natural. She moves a little like a dancer and she's always ready with a disgusted sneer or a conspiratorial can-you-believe-this? smirk that suggests a private joke aimed at the material, the audience, or herself. (Maybe the latter, given that she never made another film.) She's definitely not trying too hard, and it's a good look on her. She even makes some of her dialogue sound like it was written for the spunky heroine in a screwball comedy. "I have to move into the dorm," she tells boyfriend Ron, who responds, "Into the dorm?" And she says, "Yes, to do my research. Don't you see?" Something about that "Don't you see?" makes me think she's trying to get Cary Grant or Dick Powell off her back. Another stand-out performer arrives late in the film, when a subplot involving Lisa's affair with her math professor culminates in a delicious showdown with the man's wife, who threatens to cut a bitch. The older woman is played by Mae Mercer, an actress who was also a blues singer, which only begins to explain the utter ferocity she exhibits in what's essentially a cameo appearance. It's a genuinely great scene.
That an essentially weightless sex comedy can build to a moment so arresting is only one example of how smart The Swinging Cheerleaders was on the page first. Working under the feminine noms de plume Jane Witherspoon and Betty Conklin, Hill and co-writer David Kidd scripted the film in a hurry, but still made sure to frame it as a satire of contemporary politics, sexual and otherwise. In one early scene, Kate takes off her shirt, then pauses mid-striptease to put the shiny black bra she's wearing in context, explaining, "This is a relic of the nearly forgotten past, very cleverly engineered to hold you together when you jump up and down." As Kate urges Andrea, a nice but weird kid with intimacy issues, out of her Sears-catalogue bra and into some young stud's bedroom, Kate urges, "Don't be afraid to use men for what you want. They do it to us without a qualm." Then there's the real conflict that Kate's undercover undertaking brings to the fore, between boyfriend Ron, a self-aggrandizing and morally corrupt liberal, and the football players Buck (Ron Hajak) and Ross (Ric Carrott), who tend to be kind and sensitive oafs with big hearts to match.
That being said, it's in Hill's determination to demonize Ron that the movie makes its one big misstep. Once Kate dumps him, he puts the moves on Andrea, who takes the bait. After they're finished, she enthusiastically asks to learn "some more ways to do it." Ron responds by calling over several of his buddies, promising, "something really depraved, a nihilistic happening.... We are going to gang-bang a cheerleader." She grins sweetly in response, presumably in anticipation of some kind of erotic revelation. When next we see Andrea, she's back in the arms of ex-boyfriend Ross, her face and neck cut and bruised. The encounter is thus coded as rape, but the film goes out of its way to show Andrea as relatively unbothered by it. It seems that she may have consented to the encounter, and/or that she is mostly OK with it. Be that as it may, Ross lights out for Ron's place, where he pounds the hell out of the campus radical. And that's the mistake. It's not even the suggestion that Andrea might have requested and enjoyed a violent or demeaning sexual adventure that rankles; it's the fact that she gets blown off so the picture can better concentrate on advancing the story for the men surrounding her. It strikes a bit of a sour note in an otherwise resolutely sweet and female-centric sex comedy.
Fortunately, the film recovers its unambiguous loopiness after that, pivoting neatly into a third act that requires Kate to regain the trust of both the jocks and the cheerleaders after her journalistic project is exposed, uniting them to help derail a plot to rig the Big Game by keeping Buck from playing. The action culminates in that riotous, slapstick fistfight I mentioned earlier, where helmeted linemen tackle bad cops to the ground as Rainbeaux Smith bounces around in the background, yelling, "Fight, team, fight!" In the end, of course, The Swinging Cheerleaders save the day. And, well, what more do you want? The Swinging Cheerleaders is an exploitation movie that urges you to get to know people before judging them; that argues for the coexistence of feminism and romantic love; and that genuinely treats its titular characters as full-fledged human beings with complicated needs and desires. Yes, it objectifies them to some extent (only Camp seems to have negotiated a no-nudity contract clause). Yet it also treats them as the most interesting characters on screen by a country mile, and that's something.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
On Arrow Video's new Blu-ray release, The Swinging Cheerleaders is presented in a ravishing new 2K transfer ("from original film materials") characterized by highly saturated colours. Greens, yellows, and pinkish-red skin tones all have a lush fecundity that makes this digital presentation really pop, despite the clearly vintage film look and palette. Digital noise reduction dials have been ridden sparingly, if at all, maintaining a natural sprinkling of visible film grain throughout a picture that's free of obvious artifacts even in step-frame mode. (Setting the video bitrate at a full 35 Mbps definitely helps in that department.) The 1.64:1, 1080p image is a bit garish, and the colour balance occasionally seems a little otherworldly, but I'm putting that down to characteristics of the early-1970s Fuji film stock rather than Blu-ray revisionism. The uncompressed (LPCM) monaural audio track is less impressive, though not due to any glaring faults. While the original audio obviously wasn't recorded or mastered with wide dynamic range in mind, what's there is clear enough, with music, dialogue, and sound effects each crisply rendered in the mix.
A second audio track is dedicated to running commentary courtesy Jack Hill and American Grindhouse director Elijah Drenner. Hill gives good commentary, and the track is rarely less than engaging. Though most of the anecdotes are your usual mildly-interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits, Hill does occasionally come out of his shell to talk about stylishness on a low budget. He describes learning how to direct in a UCLA film class taught by Dorothy Arzner, who cautioned against moving the camera too much. Then again, he subsequently allows that "a camera move from side to side can give you a 3D effect that you don't get from a stationary camera." While Drenner is mostly a friendly and solicitous interviewer, he does get a bit adversarial when it comes time to discuss the sticky question of consent and Andrea's potential status as rape victim. "In Ayn Rand's great novel The Fountainhead, that was her wet dream--but we don't need to get into that," Hill volunteers at one point, later declaring, "If you're raped by Gary Cooper, that's very different." Baited further, he simply says, "I wanted the ambiguity," and clams up on the subject. (Rockabilly musician and B-movie bon vivant Johnny Legend got a little farther with him on the 1999 DVD track, where Hill said Andrea's attitude towards the incident was based on personal experience.)
A Q&A session (19 mins., HD) from a 2007 screening of the film at L.A.'s New Beverly Cinema with Hill, Rosanne Katon, and Colleen Camp doesn't add a lot of new information, although it's entertaining enough for fans. Katon remembers there was some anxiety during the shoot about how her dark skin would show up on Fuji stock, and Hill backs her up. "That goddamned Fujifilm. Why couldn't they have spent the money to get Eastman Kodak and get a good picture? But no one seemed to care." Hill also makes one key observation about the film's politics I didn't hear elsewhere on this disc: "I know that John Prizer, who was my producer on it, came up with a lot of the ideas," he says. "Little did I realize he was a total reactionary. I just thought it was fun."
"Jack Hill: Swingin' Alma Mater" (8 mins., HD) is a new interview with Hill, who discusses his early career, including his original intention to become a musician. In fact, he says, he went to film school at UCLA with the intention of becoming a film-score composer. "The most important thing to me is pacing," he says. "As a musician, you're creating an art that exists in time, and that's the way a film is, also." He says working with Roger Corman taught him "how to make every nickel show on screen," and that working with AIP's Lawrence Jordan insulated him from executive interference as he was developing Foxy Brown and Coffy.
Arrow has recycled 10-plus minutes of an interview with cinematographer Alfred Taylor that was originally created in standard-def for a DVD release of Spider Baby, the other Jack Hill movie photographed by Taylor. The DP touches on his philosophy of lighting and his early days in the business, and he explains how Francis Ford Coppola helped get him the job shooting The Swinging Cheerleaders. He says he realized late in life that his real legacy with up-and-coming filmmakers was not going to be Spider Baby, but instead Killer Klowns from Outer Space.
If you make it through all of the above, a VHS-quality clip (11 mins.) in which Johnny Legend interviews Hill covers familiar territory. Legend does quiz Hill on why Colleen Camp wasn't asked to appear nude in The Swinging Cheerleaders, and Hill ventures matter-of-factly that she would have been happy to do it if the script had presented an opportunity. He had no interest, he claims, in forcing nudity into the film. ("Art is art," he says with a shrug.) He additionally offers a succinct summary of the movie's enduring appeal: "It was like a Disney sex comedy, in a way." It's a nice archival relic for Hill fans. A pair of TV spots--but no theatrical trailer--plus a DVD version of the film cap a satisfying and definitive presentation.