1999
Writers: Sonny Bono (book), Ellen Weston
Director: David Burton Morris

Cast
Jay Underwood.....Sonny Bono
Renee Faia.....Cher
Christian Lafleur.....Phil Spector

The odd thing is, banal as these people were, a good movie could be made about them. Really.

But I'll save my case for later.

I'll start with my review.

Even by the Limburger standards set by made-for-TV movies, this is cheesy.

The actors look like Salvatore Bono and Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre. He even manages to capture the essential Sonny, the TV personality who channelled his basic wimpiness into a comic character. She bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Cher, but, acting-wise, is bested by the cartoon Cher who guest-starred on The New Scooby-Doo Movies.

The film, based on Sonny's autobiography, flashes back from the couple's TV reunion on David Letterman, in the 1980s. This perspective means that Cher's experiences receive short shrift, and a number of personally embarrassing, but dramatically intriguing (or just funny) elements are overlooked. The story of their past together ends with the cancellation of their show, so we don't get to see Sonny's has-been days, sailing into guest spots on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island because no one else would touch him, or being kicked in the knee by Herve Villechaize because he called the little guy "Pontoon" instead of "Tattoo." The ending skips from the reunion to the death, and so Sonny's political career also gets ignored.

Mostly, we get the early life, presented in an entirely predictable manner. The director establishes the a-changing times by showing us stock footage, most of which we've seen before, in other specials on the 1960s. The expected backdrop of hits from the era presents a bigger problem; the period top-ten fluff which inspired Sonny's songwriting is generally much better than his own efforts.

The container presents less a problem than the content, however. Hollywood can easily get the look of a recent era right. Why can't they put as much effort into strong writing? I've workshopped plays with teenagers whose efforts put to shame the sitcom dialogue which characterizes And the Beat Goes On. And, if the film wasn't bad enough on its own, it constantly invites comparison to much better ones. The house-buying scene, when the couple strike it rich, recalls a similar scene in Great Balls of Fire. What was the director thinking?

The constant flashbacks aren't really connected in any meaningful way, and they certainly aren't dramatically all that interesting. A true-life biography needs a shape, something on which to hang the story (32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is the exception, but even there, a sense of a movement towards the end underlies the episodic structure). And Sonny Bono's career provides such an obvious hook, I'm surprised it was overlooked.

Consider the proto-psychedelic clothing the duo wore as "Caesar and Cleo," and which carried into their "Sonny and Cher," identities-- when they weren't opening for bigger names in Las Vegas. Long before it became acceptable, they were wearing the weird, dreamy garb which the hippies and hippie wannabees would later popularize-- because, as this film explains, Sonny knew it would get them attention, and he hoped that would translate into gigs.

Consider the guests on their early 70s show: the Osmonds, Bobby Sherman, the Jackson Five, Don Knotts, Ronald Reagan-- and the man who would later come between Sonny and a midget's wrath, Ricardo Montalban. Fine variety show guests, I guess-- but not an innovator or 60s "radical" performer in the bunch.

Consider the political line which Sonny toed once he involved himself in American politics.

Or consider this story, left out of the film but captured on documentary footage elsewhere: Sonny was asked about the influence of Bob Dylan. He cited "It Ain't Me Babe," saying that he knew Bob was onto something with this "Babe thing." Sonny explains that he eventually figured it out, and wrote "I Got You Babe." That's right. Bono-man heard Zimmerman when people were fighting over musical styles and political ideas, and he responded with, "hey! I should use the word 'babe' in a song!"

What do all of these considerations have in common?

In 1967, at the height of the Summer of Love, the Haight-Ashbury residents staged the Death of Hippie, a symbolic funeral in which they buried the image they'd helped create. It had already become public domain, a quaintly exotic image used to sell cars and toothpaste. From there, it was a short trip to the Brady Bunch's "hip" early-seventies clothing, Pepsi's sponsorship of Woodstock '94, and political conservatives' posturing (from the 1980s onward) as revolutionary underdogs, supposedly shut out of power by an imagined liberal media establishment.

Well, our man Sonny was a prophet of the marketing of radical chic. He went there before others, and it's not surprising the apex of his career would occur in the first half of the 1970s, when the look and attitude of the late 60s counter-culture had been safely, and completely commodified.

And as such, he is a prophet for our own time, when every idea, look, trend, and political stance becomes another marketing device-- when it wasn't one in the first place. When multi-billion-dollar corporations make commercials claiming you'll be a unique individual if you buy their product, like all the other unique individuals. When even Bill Gates claims to be an outsider.

We are Sonny's people.

And the beat goes on.

A variation of this review, by this author, first appeared at Bad Movie Night.

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