Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is maverick 1960s porn purveyor Russ Meyer’s finest achievement.
Mayer had made many low budget flicks before this, like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a great film depicting the adventures of three psychopathic go-go-dancers (it’s as good as it sounds).
But Beyond the Valley was his first for a major studio, and as well as having a higher budget (all the better for filming the crowd scenes and financing an appearance by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, a late 60s rock group that was on the wane).
The script was jointly created by Meyer and Roger Ebert, a film critic, of all people. Although a colourful whirl of Los Angeles life at the turn of the decade, BTVOTD was not based in any fact – the men got their idea for the unhinged ‘Teen Tycoon of Rock’ Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell from Phil Spector.
Neither of them actually knew him, or knew much about him, so they wrote the character as they thought he’d be like. It certainly isn’t an accurate source of reference for its period, but it is lots of fun.
Claimed (later) by both men to be a parody, BTVOTD is an odd film – it looks several years older than its release date of 1970. Interestingly, the band that the film is centred round, The Carrie Nations, nee whatever, had no precedent at the time – successful female groups of this time tended to be a puppet of a pop svengali, not the feisty, songwriting, instrument-playing bunch depicted here.
The band, consisting of feisty lead singer Kelly, doe-eyed and melancholy Casey and hip soul sister Petronella were all played by ex-Playboy centrefold girls. Despite their dubious pedigree, all three pull off their parts with great aplomb, even given Dolly Read (who plays singer Kelly), whose accent sometimes veers back into English – she was born in Bristol.
The film charts their rise to fame, and their downfalls along the way. Starting off by playing college gigs, they move to Los Angeles, where one of the band has a long lost aunt, who she is convinced will help them. And this she does, by promptly offering her neice half a million dollars of an inheritance.
She then introduces them to a leading music producer at one of his parties, the suave Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell. This bizarre character, who constantly talks in a cod-shakespearean way was indirectly inspired by legendary loony record producer Phil Spector -neither Meyer or Ebert had met him, and so came up with a fantasy of what they imagined him to be like, a technique which helped them create other characters too.
All three of the girls were played by ex-nudie models with no previous acting experience. To their credit, they pull their roles off very well, although Dolly Read, the female lead, does occasionally slip back into a British accent (she was from Bristol, fittingly enough).
But the most striking character goes by the name of Ashley St. Ives. Played by Meyer’s then-wife, she is quite terrifying in the pursuit of the band’s original manager, Harris Allsworth. “She went after me like a barracuda”, quips one (clearly gay) gentleman at one point, and you can clearly see what he means. Sadly she isn’t in the film for long, but she sure makes her mark.
The film looks rather older than it is, which makes all the jaunty drug references and sudden nudity all the more jarring. In fact, it is more reminiscent of a highly condensed soap opera than a movie at times, a fact borne out by the use of dramatic organ music at pivotal points, in the way that a show such as Peyton Place would have done.
BTVOTD comes across as a lurid and hysterical piece of exploitation, and a lot happens during the running time. Apparently Meyer and Ebert insisted that the parts were to be taken seriously by the actors, but had intended the whole thing to be a send up, and the lack of knowing smiles or winks just heightens the ridiculousness.
Filmed in glorious, saturated Technicolor, and with sets that represent the worst (or best) of late sixties design, BTVOTD is quite a trip in every way possible.