‘Cop Rock’: Those singing, dancing officers are back on the beat after 26-year break
Before the rise of Lucious and Cookie’s “Empire,” the giddiness of “Glee” and the wackiness of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” there was “Cop Rock.”
The 1990 drama co-created by veteran producer Steven Bochco (“Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue”), which mashed gritty police drama with original musical numbers showcasing cops and criminals singing and dancing, was a precursor to several dramas and comedies that have incorporated music into their story lines.
But while critics and viewers have mostly sung the praises of “Empire” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Cop Rock” struck a sour note and is remembered primarily as one of the most notorious misfires of the last three decades.
However, “Cop Rock” is back on the beat. The complete series has been released in a DVD box set by Shout! Factory, which specializes in quirky fare and cult favorites.
“I’m delighted,” Bochco said in a recent phone interview. “It’s enormously gratifying. I always felt it was one of the highlights of my career, and I still do. It was an enormously challenging project and everyone involved was committed to it.”
Added Anne Bobby, who played Officer Vicky Quinn, “My initial feeling is that this is really redemption for everyone involved. The show was very much ahead of its time. With ‘Empire’ and ‘Glee,’ the medium has finally caught up to the vision we had.”
Jordan Fields, vice president of acquisitions for Shout Factory, feels that today’s viewers will be much more receptive to “Cop Rock.” He compared it to other offbeat titles in their catalogue such as “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”
“Where those series are now cultural treasures, ‘Cop Rock,’ which risked just as much for its creative vision, was almost universally derided,” Fields said in a statement. “Still, anytime you do something that outside the box, there will always be fans who appreciate its sheer audacity and feel almost protective of it. Naturally, we’re targeting those people. But we believe that a new generation much less unnerved by bold TV will embrace it. Twenty-five years later, people may finally be ready for ‘Cop Rock.’”
The show was set at an LAPD station, with plot lines revolving around crime-fighting, corruption, the personal lives of officers and suspects. “Cop Rock” established its mission in its premiere when officers bust into a drug house and arrest several gang members. In the middle of the scene, a heavy beat is heard and the gang starts into a rap, chanting, “In these streets, we got the power!”
Four other musical numbers are staged during the hour, including a gospel-flavored scene in a courtroom where the jury proclaims, “He’s guilty.”
The premiere ended with a female drug addict sitting on a bus bench singing a sweet lullaby to her sleeping baby just before she sells the infant to get money for drugs.
Randy Newman performed the title song “Under the Gun,” joined in the studio by the cast. Newman wrote all of the songs for the premiere. For other episodes, a staff of songwriters, including Amanda McBroom, who wrote the hit Bette Midler movie ballad “The Rose,” worked alongside the writing staff, turning out five original songs each week.
The concept for the show was launched during the early ‘80s when Bochco was approached by a Broadway producer about adapting his hit “Hill Street Blues” for a musical on the Great White Way.
Although he rejected that approach, Bochco and co-creator William M. Finkelstein started toying with the idea of putting music into a cop show. When Bochco got a deal at ABC that allowed him to develop different projects, “Cop Rock” moved to the top of the list.
Unlike “Glee” or “Empire,” the numbers on “Cop Rock” were not pre-recorded — the cast performed live, which made the production even more difficult.
Bobby recalled that the cast, mostly made up of unknowns and Broadway veterans, warmed to the challenge.
“It was a pretty magical experience,” Bobby said. “It was beautifully cast with this mix of L.A. and New York actors. And it was more than the music. The show dealt with homelessness, systemic racism, corruption. Steven and Bill were ahead of their time not just with the music but with the subject matter. It was an approach that had never been done before.”
But what may have worked on the theatrical stage landed with a thud on the small screen.
Bochco said, “There’s an expectation when you walk into a musical, a tradition where you know people will start singing during the story. But on TV, it was a bad transplant. The very thing that audiences would have responded to in a theater didn’t work on the intimacy of a TV screen in the privacy of your own home.”
Shows such as “Glee” and “Empire” have handled the singing concept much better, said Bochco. “‘Glee’ used existing popular music and framed it in a performance context. ‘Empire’ is a show about the music business, so the music there is organic.”
Bochco said that although he is excited about the release, he’s not necessarily eager to walk down memory lane and watch his former series.
“It’s done,” he said. “I don’t go back to watch any of my shows. I’ve moved on.”
June 15 12:01 p.m. This post was updated with a revised release date. “Cop Rock” was released on DVD last week, not this week.
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