by Jay Seaver
SCREENED AT THE 2005 BOSTON FILM FESTIVAL: "Johnny Slade's Greatest Hits" gives the appearance of being a sketch of some sort stretched to feature length. The credits include mention that star John Fiore created the character of Johnny Slade, although Larry Blamire is credited with the screenplay. Watching it, I could imagine how it worked - Fiore comes out as Slade, sings a silly song, banters with the audience a little, and so on. It's kind of a good bit, especially since the songs aren't bad at all. Once you get Johnny off the stage, he's out of his element a bit, but he's also likable enough that the movie actually does a bit better than avoiding being a chore.Johnny Slade (Fiore) is a Boston-area lounge singer who refuses to sing anything but his own compositions, which are eccentric. He plays to empty houses and occasionally cuts an album on a vanity label, and is considering hanging it up. Then, one day, he's offered a new job out of the blue - headlining at a classy new club. The only hitch is that he has to sing a song written by the reclusive Mr. Samantha (Vincent Curatola) every night - songs which don't make any sense, but seem to correspond to the next morning's crime news. Soon, he figures out what's going on, but he can't just get out: Samantha's men, the Irish mob, the FBI, and sexy club owner Charlie Payne (Dolores Sirianni) all know what's up, and stopping could be hazardous to his health.
"An extended sketch that was never, apparently, a sketch."
It's a thoroughly preposterous story, of course; the plot has as many holes as a thing with a great many holes. The characters are all, initially, sort of obnoxious, but they soften as the movie continues - a little fear does wonders for Johnny's cockiness; Samantha comes to enjoy writing his goofy lyrics (although Johnny doesn't like the idea of being considered a joke); and Charlie takes a shine to Johnny. We learn a little more about them, and hearing that Johnny works blue-collar jobs between gigs softens him a little. He's just trying to chase dreams, as is his agent Jerry (Richard Portnow), who would really like Johnny to hit it big so that he can get rid of the used car lot.
What makes Slade work as well as it does, I think, is that unlike most expansions of a character bit (if that's what this is), the title character plays the straight man most of the time. Sure, his songs are silly, along with the album covers we see in the opening credit montage - "The Soda Fountain of Love" is especially double entendre-rific. When he's dealing with the mobsters and feds, he tends more toward "last sane man in the city". It's not a great performance, but Fiore also writes most of his own songs, and is a surprisingly appealing leading man. Not bad for a guy who has made a career out guest-starring on Law & Order and The Sopranos.
The rest of the cast seems to be mostly composed of New York's B-list and local Boston guys. Portnow gets more than a few funny moments, as does Curatola as the oily, bad-tempered mob boss hiding out in a ridiculously small office (it's nigh-impossible for Fiore's Slade to fit into the chair on the other side of Samantha's desk, since there's no room to pull it out). Dolores Sirianni makes both an entertaining foil and love interest for Slade. Also amusing is Jennifer Blaire as Angela, a textbook mix of sex appeal and psychosis working for the Irish mob.
Ms. Blaire is undoubtedly in the movie in part because she is married to the film's writer/director, Larry Blamire. Blamire's IMDB biography lists him as primarily being a playwright, but he's worked in film before. Unfortunately, his previous film is The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, a painful failure to recreate the campy atmosphere of 1950s monster movies. In a way, Johnny Slade is another attempt to do deliberate camp, with Slade's songs being corny by design, much of the plot being composed of bad clichés, and a thug's deliberate attempt to create a catchphrase (although I admit, the idea of a guy actually making an effort to end every sentence with the phrase "like a f---ing monkey" is a good parody of characters who beat a phrase to death). As with Skeleton, though, the jokes and plotlines are all fairly obvious and straightforward, stuff a clever twelve-year-old with the right pop-culture background could have come up with. It works better here, since everyone involved is trying to make a good movie, as opposed to trying to get you to laugh at how bad it is, but the double meaning of the title is about as clever as the movie gets.That doesn't count against it; there's some genuine talent in its cast of character actors given larger roles, and they execute fairly well. I wonder, though, whether I'd love it in a regular screening, as opposed to a packed house that included a lot of family and friends of the local cast and crew. Laughter is contagious, after all, and this is a crowd well-predisposed to like the film.
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originally posted: 01/14/06 11:39:01