Time is fleeting, indeed: It’s been 41 years since The Rocky Horror Picture Show made its first very fleeting appearance in movie theaters, and just a little less than that since it turned into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon via midnight revival screenings. Needless to say, most of those involved with Fox’s Oct. 20 TV-movie remake are too young to claim membership in the original cult — including music producer Cisco Adler, who, having been born in 1978, was wearing diapers when the original fans were putting on garter belts.
But when Adler says the movie and stage show are “literally in my blood,” he’s only stretching the literal a little. There’s that telltale last name: The 38-year-old is the son of Lou Adler, the rock and film impresario who brought the London stage production of Rocky Horror to America and then produced the 1975 feature film. Needless to say, maybe, the younger Adler is one of the few people in the world who never really experienced a Frank-N-Furter-free childhood. “It’s crazy how early those memories are in my head,” says Cisco. “It’s always the anniversaries that stick out, but I can remember dressing up as Riff Raff at 7 years old. I’m very proud of the patch it holds on my quilt of weirdness. Now I have the same sort of care for this franchise that my dad does — it’s the family crest.”
Lou Adler appointed Cisco, who’d worked with Shwayze and other L.A. rock and hip-hop acts, to oversee the music for what ended up being called The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again. The movie’s soundtrack album goes on sale Oct. 21, the morning after the Fox premiere, and what fans of the song score will hear is very much an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” production, with no contemporizing to speak of. Which is not to say that it’s a straight remake of the movie soundtrack; Cisco Adler also has the gazillion international stage cast albums still circulating in his bloodstream as influences, too.
“Not so much for myself, but I definitely had the players brush up on certain versions before we went in and made our own version,” Adler says. “This music has been done many, many times, not just once for the film, and there are a million reference points or compass points, so you just have to choose which ones you want to go to and go. They’re great songs, so that always leads the way.” Departures from any past version were few, although “’Time Warp’ during the tap dance breakdown turns into a sort of James Brown-esque build, and that’s something that wasn’t really there before, but I think it feels right at home. It was important that anything different felt at home and on purpose and wasn’t just changing something to change it.
“Personally,” Adler adds, “I sort of went off of intuition and memory. But [director] Kenny Ortega was always very fond of the Roxy play cast version, and it was a little more boogie-woogie. So I think we definitely leaned into that. You know, the talk was always around Laverne Cox’s character being a sort of Tina Turner compared to Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter, which was obviously more glam/London. I think we just tried to take the music down South. With the way the guitars were attacked and stuff like that, we were looking for that sort of classic rock ‘n’ roll boogie that we all know originated in the South.”
It is interesting that, although we associate Rocky Horror with the glitter-rock era, for obvious reasons of makeup as well as music, the style of the more rocking numbers has that basic boogie. But Adler points out that that isn’t uncharacteristic of David Bowie, Mott the Hoople, T. Rex, or other Brit-champs of that mid-‘70s era. “Listen, glam-rock is Southern rock with makeup, so that’s where we went,” he says with a laugh. “You know, there’s a reason Bowie went to Muscle Shoals [in Alabama] to record.”
As faithful as the new movie and soundtrack generally are to the four-decade-old source material, the most obvious point of departure is obviously going to come with Cox, the Orange is the New Black star, as the “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania.” You can’t exactly call any casting that happens in this role casting against gender, but the role is identified with a man with a fairly deep, if fairly effeminate, voice. So giving it to a woman, even if she’s a woman with some history as a man, can’t help but transform the role.
“She’s a force,” says Adler of Cox. “And she was already this part when she walked in the door to cut those first tracks. She was the most realized character, because she was the first cast. But her voice is super-interesting. The fact that she still has range from her male vocal range as well as this new female vocal range gave us the ability to play with that and really give context to this character being a blurred line of gender. She’s just amazing. People who hear her voice get that look in their eye and their ears perk up. She added a sort of dark thing to the vocal that I don’t think was there before; I think it added a whole bunch of other implications and notions to the character and to the lyrics. And Laverne has the most songs” — eight numbers that are mostly or entirely solo — “so the character develops over more songs than the other characters. With ‘I’m Going Home,’ we ended up keeping the take that is just a piano/vocal take from her screen test, because it was just so powerful, and she was almost exhausted and crying by the end of it. She always says that playing this part felt like she was going home. She was meant to play it.”
On the other end of the scale — character-wise, and octave-wise — is the character Janet, who gets some classic Broadway ingénue material early on and a sexual awakening later. The natural casting for that role was Victoria Justice, practically the only tween-TV star of the ‘00s left who hadn’t already told the world that “I wanna be dirty,” as Janet eventually does.
The ex-Zoey 101/Victorious star “turned out so perfect as our damsel in distress,” says Adler, “and even though she has a similar vocal quality as Susan [Sarandon], it’s definitely her own thing and her own persona. With her coming from the Disney/Nickelodeon world, and guess what, she’s singing a song called ‘Touch a Touch a Touch a Touch Me’ in her underwear — get ready, world.”
Adam Lambert is in the Meat Loaf role, which consisted of just one song (“Hot Patootie”). But if that one song was enough to make Mr. Loaf a star, maybe it’s enough for the celebrated Idol alumnus. (Or maybe not, since, unlike the definitely deceased Meat of the mid-‘70s, Lambert gets a post-death curtain call in this one to duet on the closing reprise of “Science Fiction Double Feature.”)
“Hot Patootie” is “one of the most anticipated songs, obviously, behind ‘Time Warp’ and maybe ‘Sweet Transvestite,’” Adler says. “And Meat Loaf’s performance was so legendary, and a moment in an actual moment. But Lambert came in and killed it. He’s a vocal acrobat. He’s singing with Queen on a daily basis, so he’s got the highest level of rock ‘n’ roll singer chops going right now. He came in and just devoured that song. The talent is ingrained in him — he doesn’t have to warm up, he doesn’t have to work. He opens his mouth and it comes out like that.”
Cisco was in the weird position of giving all these actor/singers, or singer/actors, their first real direction as their characters, months before cameras rolled. “I don’t think doing the movie live ever came up,” Adler says, pointing up the difference between this and other recent TV musicals like The Wiz and Grease. “So we were able to really approach it like making a record. The catch was that the casting was going on while we had already started recording, which was super-interesting. A role would get cast, and sometimes we’d have to go back and change the key to make sure it fit whoever it was. And then character development was going on in the studio, because this was the first time these people were becoming that character, and they would have to stick to it, however many months later, when they went into filming” and had to lip-sync to their earlier audio portrayal.
How relevant will fans (or detractors) find a new Rocky Horror in 2016? It’s hard to say, though a couple of the soundtrack songs have already been made available for streaming preview, and the first 25 minutes of the TV film was previewed at this year’s Comic-Con, to mostly positive fan reaction, if hardly universal acclaim. Whatever its merits or demerits, any Rocky remake arrives in a vastly different climate than the mid-‘70s. Then, sexual transgression felt truly transgressive, and not a nearly quaint trope. What tends to get lost is contemporary discussions of the musical is how deftly creator/songwriter Richard O’Brien paid tribute to the innocence, musical styles, and sci-fi conventions of a previous era before affectionately demolishing them.
In 1975, The Day the Earth Stood Still — one of the movies mentioned in the opening “Science Fiction Double Feature” number — was less than a quarter-century old; nearly twice as much time has passed between these two versions of Rocky Horror as passed between the Michael Rennie era and the first film. It’s no wonder that this new version opens with the actress singing the theme song walking past posters for the old movies being cited; otherwise, it was probably reasoned, younger viewers might not have the slightest idea what’s being sung about. If the original musical was a brilliant metaphor for the ‘50s giving way to the alien-ness of the countercultural and sexual revolution, that’s a theme that will be largely lost on millennials who’ve never known anything but the openness to “absolute pleasure” that Rocky Horror’s aliens cross galaxies to share with unsuspecting debutantes.
But maybe Rocky Horror can transcend generations sans any specific cultural context, because the pelvic thrust is the universal language.
Adler knows a few Rocky Horror fans have trash-talked the remake, sight unseen. “Of course!” he says. “And God bless them, right? As long as people are talking, I think that’s a good sign. For me personally, there was definitely trepidation, or at least a realization that there was going to be those people who hold this so dear that nothing could ever even be done after it. And surprisingly, the reactions have been amazing from hardcore fans most importantly, and the people you would think would be instantly averse to this have been welcoming. I think the more they see and the more they hear, they’re going to realize it was made for them and it’s exactly what they would want it to be.”