As the gleefully funny “Tapeheads” begins, an idealistic John Cusack watches a rock music video with narrowed eyes. It’s parading disembodied female flesh like so many chicken wings in a commercial, and its crassness disgusts him. “Inane, mind-rot, stench, Pablum,” he stammers.
“You could do that!” his more management-minded partner, Josh, says instantly. It sets in motion a cynical, let’s-put-on-a-show-biz odyssey that has would-be director Josh (Tim Robbins) and manager Ivan (Cusack) launching themselves into the rock-video business. Mickey, Judy and a barn it ain’t.
It is very 1988. The self-proclaimed Video Aces’ manifesto is, “Do what you gotta do so you can do what you wanna do.” And though “Tapeheads” (citywide) is chock full of choice satire of pop culture, their yuppie-sounding motto is not one of the targets of the movie’s mockery. Instead, a rather jaded, practical message underlies all the inspired lunacy here: Selling out can buy you the chance to achieve your dreams.
Lest this wisecrack-filled doozy of a farce sound more sophisticated than it is, it should be pointed out that “Tapeheads” isn’t all that distantly removed from the teen-sex-comedy genre, and makes its sharp points on commercialism and empty imagery through giddily sophomoric gags, not polite, subtle asides. Director Bill Fishman (who made some of MTV’s wittiest clips before moving on to this assured feature debut) is not timid about taking a tasteless look at a tasteless culture.
The videos-within-the-film are predictably crass, and more watchable than anything on the tube now. The best one comes in the guise of a fast-food commercial, as Josh and Ivan hilariously turn hickish, silver-haired chicken proprietor Roscoe (King Cotton) into a beat-crazed rap master.
The plot thickens to include a corrupt senator (Clu Gulager) searching for a highly damaging videotape, and a sexpot rock photographer (Mary Crosby) who has it. But even as the bullets and innuendoes fly, Josh and Ivan are more concerned with redeeming themselves by reviving the careers of their childhood heroes, the Swanky Modes (played as a Sam & Dave-style duo by soul legends Sam Moore and Junior Walker).
It’s to the credit of Fishman and producer/co-writer Peter McCarthy that they keep terminal wiseacres Ivan and Josh as likable as they are profane. (The movie’s R rating was earned.) In a banal way, fast-talking impresario Cusack and the more disheveled Robbins neatly symbolize the symbiotic relationship of commerce and art. But more importantly, they’re credible as white baby-boomers who had their middle-class destinies completely usurped during their Wonder years by the divine appearance of black acts like the Swanky Modes. “Tapeheads” has almost as much soul as it does good, cheap laughs.