Retro Review: Weirdly Cool Music in an Old-West Universe

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The American Astronaut
Written and directed by Cory McAbee
Copyright 2001
Buy/rent at Amazon.com

This week’s Retro Review is a little bit unusual: it’s not too old (2001), but is not generally recognized in the sci-fi world. This is a shame, because it is not only an excellent bit of science fiction, it also works extremely well as a musical and a low-budget independent film.

The American Astronaut (2001) was a project by the band The Billy Nayer Show, a band out of New York consisting of singer/songwriter Cory McAbee, drummer Bobby Lurie, and bassist Frank Swart. They are one of those bands that is hard to classify as to genre: you can expect straight-up rock, country, instrumentals … really anything that takes their fancy. Naturally, they provide most if not all of the music for this film, which is sort of a futuristic grungy western kind of a thing.

The plot, like the band itself, is anything but typical: the eponymous astronaut (McAbee) trades a cat for a Real Live Girl, which he swaps for a Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast so that he can take him to replace the King of Venus. In the meantime he meets some silver miners, wins a dance contest, and flees the man who wants to forgive him so that he can kill him.

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Why, yes: he is a homicidal maniac. How ever could you tell?

Maybe we should go through that again.

The movie starts with the movie’s character, Sam, landing on the asteroid Ceres to deliver a cat to a seedy dive bar. In return, he is given a cloning device that is in the process of germinating a Real Live Girl. It doesn’t take long to pick up that this is a rarity indeed in the movie’s universe: indeed, the only women we ever see are on Venus. Other than there, space is a real sausage fest. A dank, grimy place where everything’s gray and nobody picks up their dirty socks.

After the swap, Sam heads to the bathroom where he is serenaded by a couple of toughs hired by the Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor), notorious fruit smuggler and old friend/dance partner to Sam. This first number, “Hey Boy”, gives a real taste of what the viewer has gotten themselves into. The song itself is catchy, and seeing it performed by a couple of looming tough guys as they dance up and down the bathroom is downright surreal.

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Song & dance numbers in the bathroom: the *real* threat.

The Pirate gets together with Sam and makes him a deal: if he helps him win the dance contest being held at the bar that night, he’ll give him a lead on a good job. He is to retrieve the body of one Johnny R. to his wealthy family on Earth. Johnny, it seems, had spent most of his life on Venus, the planet of women. There, he had lived as a king/stud service until his death. The women of Venus reuse to give up his body until someone drops off a replacement, preferably young and alive.

Fortunately, the owner of Jupiter has in his possession a Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast (Gregory Russell Cook), which in this neck of the universe makes him a bit of a revered celebrity. It would take a lot to get Jupiter to part with him, but the Real Live Girl ought to do the trick.

The dance contest commences, with the house band playing another Nayer song called “Love Smiles”. It’s all about love and smiles and giggling angels. It is also the single manliest song ever. Various contestants take it in turns to step up to the stage and strut their stuff, but Sam & the Blueberry Pirate easily wipe out the competition and win the prize.

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This week on “Dancing Among The Stars”…

And all the while, a man called Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto, the smiling gentleman in the picture above) watches from a quiet corner. Hess, for reasons of his own, cannot kill someone unless he has no reason to. His main wish is to trap Sam alone so he can forgive him for some past unexplained trespass, and, having done so, kill him. In the meantime, he settles for following Sam around throughout the picture, killing everyone he (Sam) comes into contact with.

Meanwhile on Jupiter, it’s a gala night. A group of miners have been allowed to gaze upon the presence of the Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast. He comes out dressed like an extra in an adult parody of 1930’s Flash Gordon serials. He performs a song called “A” for the worshipful masses, then curtly informs them that, “It was round and soft” before stalking off.

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How come nobody cosplays this?

Sam, who originally sold the Boy to Jupiter, quickly convinces the planet’s owner to trade up. He and the Boy depart, just in time for Hess to wipe out the planet. He stays a while to dance among the miners’ ashes singing “Party”, a disturbing little ditty made even more so by Sisto’s quiet-creepy delivery.

En route to Venus, Sam is just in the middle of telling the Boy what Hess has against him (we don’t get to hear it, unfortunately) when they encounter a barn. No, just a barn. Floating around in space. They park the spaceship inside, because wouldn’t you?

Inside, they find a group of old-timey silver miners who became space travelers when they discovered a strange rock. “It was a brand new color,” they explain. “Not a trace or hint or nothin’ of any other color you ever seen … and if you looked at it, all the parts of your brain that just sat there doing nothing would start right up, and you knew what they were there for” Readers getting a Lovecraft “Color out of Space” vibe are not alone in this.

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Jake tells us all about Space Punies. Thank ya, Jake.

No longer able to survive Earth’s gravity, they had a child and raised him in a special hydraulic suit to acclimate him to terrestrial forces. Unfortunately, they have no way of getting him back to Earth. This is all explained in a sort of musical monologue called “The Silver Miner’s Tale”, one of my favorite bits in the movie. It’s filmed in simple silhouette with minimal props, but is captivating just on the strength of the story and how it’s presented. It’s an excellent example of doing a lot with a little.

They agree to take the kid (James Ransone), known only as Bodysuit, in exchange for the chocolate and cigarettes the silver miners can’t tolerate anymore. He’s a bit of an unruly passenger, and having spent his life in the hydraulic suit, it’s all they can do to get him to hold still for a bath. It quickly becomes apparent that this is the only kind treatment he’s ever received, and during the voyage he even begins to calm down a bit.

After a somewhat peremptory landing on Venus, Sam makes his way to a sylvan glade where the women of Venus are standing around, all kitted out like southern belles and fanning themselves. He serenades them “The Girl With The Vagina Made of Glass”, which wins the prize for most wince-inducing song title ever, women’s division. He quickly moves into negotiating the swap for Johnny R’s remains, only to discover that Professor Hess has gotten there first. He suggests the Venusians get to see their replacement king before any sort of swap is agreed to. Grumbling, Sam returns to his ship.

Sam and the Boy quickly decide to give the Venusians Bodysuit instead, and get off the planet as fast as they can. Dressed in the Boy’s flashiest outfit (over the bodysuit, natch), Bodysuit instantly wins over the Venusian women. Hess is furious: this totally cuts into his killing-everyone-Sam-knows schedule. He attacks Bodysuit, who pops him one in the nose. Of course, now that he has a reason to kill Bodysuit, he cannot. Sam leaves, leaving the Professor to stand alone, impotently waving his gun, unable at last to kill.

The American Astronaut is definitely an odd little film, and about as far from (say) Star Wars as you can get and still be in the same genre. Fans of what one might call greasy space opera may note a resemblance to Dark Star (1974), another film that is crying out for a Retro Review here. McAbee et al make the barely-there budget work for them, bringing in lots of stark lighting and dramatic atmosphere. The spaceship interior is cramped and cluttered, as one would expect. Spaceflight footage is achieved using a series of stills of the ship (which resembles a locomotive) rocketing through the inky blackness. The interiors are pretty plain: the Ceres bar looks like just about any dive you would care to walk into. The auditorium on Jupiter is actually an art deco theatre they found. Interestingly, on “Venus” there are no buildings whatsoever, just a clearing in seemingly unending woods.

The world–or rather, solar system–of this movie runs on what TVTropes likes to call black-and-gray morality. Sam is nominally a good guy, but hangs around with fruit smugglers and has traded in living people. This is a future where space travel has lost its glamour. Space is for lonely men, plodding from planet to planet, working stiffs with unpleasant jobs to do. Someone on the internet once said that someday, someone will say “I have to go to the moon” in a tired, resigned voice. This is that world, and boy do we feel it.

The plot is frankly a bit silly, all things considered, but really, its job is to get us from one song to the next. And it does indeed manage this, so we can’t fault it too badly. It sags a bit here and there, and the whole Professor Hess angle feels like it could have been fleshed out a bit. This reviewer would at least have liked a couple of hints about Hess & Sam’s past.

In 2005, a DVD of the movie was released with what may be the most unique commentary feature this reviewer has ever seen. It seems that McAbee screened the movie in a pool hall (strangely appropriate), and provided live commentary which was recorded. Thus we watch him standing on stage as the movie plays behind him, discussing the movie and taking questions from the audience. This is a very creative approach, and one of this reviewer’s all-time favorite commentaries (others being the “shadowrama” one on Ghostbusters and Big Trouble in Little China). A soundtrack album, naturally, was also released.

The American Astronaut is not what most people think of when it comes to science fiction. Come to that, it’s not what most people think of when it comes to musicals or independent films. It’s one of those movies that’s almost a genre unto itself: weirdly fascinating, flawed but compelling. It should be known better than it is. Hopefully one day it will be.

Be sure to read all of our retro reviews here.

 

Kelly Luck just hopes the cat got out all right. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.

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