Big Time Rush's 'Big Time Movie': 'The Monkees' for post-Millennials
In writing about the death of Davy Jones last week, I made reference to "Big Time Rush," the Nickelodeon boy-band series that takes most of its formal cues, and many informal ones, from "The Monkees." Saturday coincidentally brings a feature-ish-length film (the series' fifth), "Big Time Movie," which takes the group, also called Big Time Rush, to London into what used to be called a spy spoof, a welter of Beatles references and a pocketful of Beatles covers.
In the least generous terms, Big Time Rush -- or BTR, which takes just as long to say though is quicker to text -- is an imitation of an imitation, but the models (which were temporally coexistent) are both solid, and the imitation is sincere. Those were different times, to be sure. There are too many avenues now, too many insular niches, too much possibility to create even a roughly cohesive counterculture that might find room for Beatles and Monkees under the same umbrella.
In the smaller world into which "The Monkees" was born, any music you could call "pop" was driven through the same narrow funnel of Top 40 radio; at its best, this system created an energetic mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, the avant-garde and the rear-guard, the carefully crafted commercial and unexpected left-field weirdness. (The Beatles, to whose songs "Big Time Movie" applies modern dance beats and the sanitizing filter of Auto-Tune, in a not totally bad way, were all those things by turn -- as were the Monkees, as they walked in their booted footsteps.)
"Big Time Rush" belongs to a new age of industrial kid-pop, when the circular formula the Monkees exploited -- the show sells the band that sells the songs that sell the show -- is just established good business practice. It's the engine that drives or drove "High School Musical" and "Hannah Montana," "American Idol" and "Glee" and all their many variations. What's different about "Big Time Rush" within this context is that it's smarter and weirder than it needs to be, and creator Scott Fellows, who also thought up "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide," remains fiercely protective of its profound goofiness.
The '60s espionage and adventure elements in "Big Time Movie" offer a way in for older as well as younger viewers, though I would guess that the main intended audience is far less likely to know these tropes from the antique Bondean originals than from their mangling in "Austin Powers" movies. (Or even from the Beatles' "Help!," whose title song opens this film as well.) It is not inconceivable they are encountering them here for the very first time.
The old dodge of a switched bag sets the plot in motion. There is an anti-gravity device called a Beetle, a Richard Kiel-sized villain named Maxwell who has a silver hammer for a hand, and a girl spy named Penny Lane (Emma Lahana). The villain is Richard Branson by way of Blofeld. The fight scenes are slapstick dances of avoidance; all guns shoot sleep darts, leading to sleep-dart humor, which somehow never gets old. There are Swedish secret agents in sweaters, and a rude talking van, painted black. When the head of British intelligence is handed a report he turns its plastic cover in the light and says, "This is very shiny," which is my idea of a funny joke.
As to the music, it is sufficiently efficient if lacking in distinguishing characteristics (never the Monkees' problem) and does well enough within the kiddie agora -- it's no Miley Cyrus-sized success, but BTR moves units. (Their upcoming summer tour will pull into Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, which is not to say "wireless amphitheater," July 19.) But if it is an essential part of this enterprise, it's also the least essential part.
-- Robert Lloyd
Top photo: From left, Emma Lahana as Penny Lane; James Maslow, Logan Henderson, Carlos Pena, Jr. and Kendall Schmidt, aka Big Time Rush, in "Big Time Movie." Credit: Nickelodeon
Bottom photo: Carlos Pena Jr., James Maslow, Kendall Schmidt and Logan Henderson in "Big Time Movie." Credit: Nickelodeon