Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Swing it... Baby! (Philippines, 1979)

The notion that disco music was an innocuous peacetime distraction is belied by its reliance on an almost militaristic set of imperatives. No one ever wrote a disco song titled “Perhaps You Might Like to Dance”. Instead it was titles like “You Should Be Dancing” and exhortations to “get on the floor” and “shake your groove thing”. Faced with such hectoring demands, one could be forgiven for thinking that disco was little more than just bullying with a beat.

Which brings us to Swing It… Baby! Here Filipino sweetheart Vilma Santos, titular star of the three best Darna movies, plays Marilen, a disco queen who is also the manager of the disco group VST & Company, IRL chart toppers who sound so much like the Bee Gees that it has to be addressed within the screenplay (“The Bee Gees? There’s no comparison!”). Marilen is being tirelessly pursued by Ben Benedicto, an executive with Genesis Entertainment, who wants to sign the group. She testily refuses his offers, but for what reason I am not sure, as the film had no subtitles. It did seem, however, to be a matter of principle on Marilen’s part, as if going corporate would somehow compromise the purity of VST & Company’s disco.

Ben Benedicto, by the way, is played by Romeo Vasquez. A matinee idol in the Filipino cinema of the 60s, Vasquez excised himself from a career slump by starring in series of popular romantic dramas with Santos--of which Swing it… Baby! is the seventh--despite the fact that the eleven year age difference between the real life couple raised a few eyebrows. Ben’s mogul image is bolstered by the omnipresence at his side of three obsequious cronies played by the musical comedy trio Tito, Vic and Joey. Of this trio, Joey DeLeon also enjoyed considerable solo success as a comedian, radio personality and TV presenter, although he is most known to the discriminating readers of 4DK for his role in Alyas Batman en Robin.

The action of Swing It… Baby! plays out against preparations for a Filipino Music Festival sponsored by the “Pop Music Foundation”, which is presumably the reason for Ben so ardently wanting to add VST & Company to his stable. In an address to his staff, he lays out the scope of his vision: “We are not selling just records; We are not just promoting performers; We are also shaping new cultural patterns for our country”. Incidentally, the music of VST Company was representative of a Filipino cultural pattern then known as the “Manila Sound”. This was soon replaced by another cultural pattern known as “OPM” (“Original Pilipino Music”), thus punching the clock on VST and Company’s fifteen minutes of fame.

It eventually dawned on me that Swing It… Baby! takes place within the same fictional universe as the Bollywood film Disco Dancer—a sort of uber-populist disco dimension in which the dancers themselves have as much chance of winning fame and adulation as the musicians whose music they dance to. Thus VST and Company comes with a troupe of dancers that are both an inseparable part of their entourage and an equal attraction in their stage shows. The standout among these is Elmo, who, when not dancing for the group, commands adoring audiences who pay for the privilege of watching him and a couple of backup dancers do the Funky Chicken. Fittingly, he is played by Mike Monserrat, who came to fame as a dancer on the Filipino TV program Penthouse 7.

Marilen and her brother have a swank home, inherited from their parents, that serves as disco central for her and her friends. When financial woes raise the threat of them losing the house, she decides to knuckle under and sell out to Ben and Genesis Entertainment. The group’s arrival in The Big City follows, kicking off with them causing a Manila traffic jam which they quickly turn into a block party through the magic of disco. Meanwhile, Marilen and Ben have disco’d their way into a romance. This leads to her neglecting her duties toward the band, which in turn creates tensions that leave them prone to the influence of Ben’s scheming ex-girlfriend Didith (Amy Austria).

Though it would be unfair, given the lack of translation, for me to make a final judgment on the matter, I have to say that the chemistry between real life lovebirds Santos and Vasquez did not in my estimation exactly burn up the screen in Swing It… Baby! Then again, the romance between them is—somewhat tiresomely--portrayed as being of the wisened “oil and vinegar” variety, with their characters either bickering or broken up for most of their time on screen. Nonetheless, when the screenplay decides that the time has arrived, reconciliation is reached, and all drama is pushed aside to make room for a climactic disco spectacle of considerable pageantry.

Is Swing It… Baby! a must see? It is… provided you really, really, like disco--or if you are simply fascinated by the portrayal of individuals for whom disco is at the absolute center of their existence. There are indeed many amusing mustaches, sparkly tops, and poufy hairdos to behold, not to mention some chintzy but colorful stage sets (though, make no mistake: Xanadu this is not). Wilma Santos is her typical, fiery-yet-charming self and Tito, Vic and Joey perform a sci-fi themed number that namechecks Space 1999. At the same time, at two hours and twenty minutes, it is much longer than any film of which those can be claimed as its chief attributes has any right to be. If ever a film could be chopped up and snorted, that might be the ideal way to partake of this oddity.

1 comment:

kenjn60 said...

Thanks for the summary...began watching this on you tube but only made it half through!