Throwback Thursday: What the Heck Is a Tapehead?

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

Having been friends since the early ’80s, and popping up in smaller roles in the other person’s films, it’s shocking to realize that John Cusack and Tim Robbins have only done one movie together in which they actually get to play friends. That film is the 1988 cult comedy Tapeheads.

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It’s a cult film in every sense of the word: I think a total of 10 people have seen it. If you are one of them, hopefully, you’ve found it as entertaining as has my close-knit group of friends. If you’ve never heard of it, sit back, relax, and let’s get into trouble, baby. Ivan (Cusack) and Josh (Robbins) are two aimless best friends in L.A. attempting to figure out what they want to do with their lives. When a literal light bulb goes off, they decide to try making music videos. (Remember the late ’80s? MTV still played music and artists spent more and more money on establishing their image in these four-minute mini films.) Ivan and Josh want to break into this world. They take jobs on spec for a shady producer, Mo Fuzz (Soul Train’s Don Cornelius), while paying their bills by taping living wills and tea parties.

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Mo Fuzz (Don Cornelius) wanting to get the boys into trouble.

The production quality is on the cheap side, and there’s an overdone plot device of a politician (the great Clu Gulager) trying to recover a sex tape, but what the plot lacks in originality it more than makes up for in random gags and one-liners. The director, Bill Fishman, got his start directing music videos: he definitely knows how ludicrous some of the “concepts” can be and makes the most out of those moments. But he also has a great knack for making a simple thing intricate: when Josh and Ivan go to high-five each other, it becomes a choreographed “all-in” 45-second spectacle. (And, yes, I did try to recreate it with my best friend from my freshman year of high school when we first saw the film.) When a bartender refuses to serve the duo another drink unless they can prove their sobriety, they end up having to recite the alphabet backwards, leaving out vowels, and giving the sign language equivalent for each letter. Also, be on the lookout for a driving scene in which Ivan and Josh reach out of the sides of the car off screen and come back with drinks in hand. It’s little moments like these that make you think, “WTF?” and keep the film afloat. There’s even a moment addressing transgender individuals’ public bathroom use, long before the “issue” got blasted all over the media as the reason for the decline of Western Civilization. (No hanky panky: they’re just using the facilities.)

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I can’t even recite the alphabet backwards sober, let alone give the sign-language equivalent.

There are also a ton of amusing cameos, from “Weird Al” to Ted Nugent, Stiv Bators (historic punk band the Dead Boys), Bobcat Goldthwait, and even an original Monkee, Mike Nesmith. Plus, if you keep your eyes peeled, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment from Courtney Love, and Jello Biafra even shows up as an FBI agent lecturing on obscenity (which is very funny if you know the history of Biafra and the Dead Kennedys).

As the movie is about music videos, you may wonder about the quality of the music. There’s a commercial in the film for Roscoe’s chicken and waffles that will definitely have you craving birds and batter. Roscoe is played by blues singer King Cotton, who has been around since the ’60s. A couple more guys from that time—bringing some much-needed soul music to the proceedings—are Sam Moore and Junior Walker playing the group, the Swanky Modes. If you don’t know who these two legends are, get yourself to iTunes or Spotify stat, and listen to some classics. Your soul will thank me. In the middle of the film, you’ll also see the band Fishbone shaking up their funk/ska formula to do a funk/country hybrid song.

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Sam Moore, Junior Walker, Tim Robbins, and John Cusack planning their trouble.

All in all, Tapeheads is a fun film that shows the great chemistry between Robbins and Cusack. Come for them: stay for the off-beat humor. This film would pair well with Bobcat Goldthwait’s Shakes the Clown.

PS: I would have included footage of Roscoe’s rap from the end credits, but it gives away too much of the plot. You’ll have to settle for the above commercial.

This film can only be found on DVD. It is currently unavailable via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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