Friday, September 09, 2016

Groupie Girl (1970)

Groupie Girl probably represents Derek Ford at the height of his powers as an exploitation film maker, long before his ill advised dalliance with sex comedies like What's Up Nurse?, or the final ultra low budget, unreleased Urge to Kill.  Despite a shoestring budget, Groupie Girl is a gritty piece of drama, given an added edge of realism thanks to being shot entirely on location and the fact that most of the groups featured in the film are portrayed by actual groups of the era.  As the title indicates, Ford's film is a 'ripped-from-the-headlines expose of the seamier side of the British pop scene, as seen through the eyes of the titular character.  The plot is straightforward: teenager Sally, attending a gig with friends, declares that she wants to become a groupie and stows away in the group's van, bound for what she thinks will be the bright lights of the London pop scene.

The reality, of course, turns out to be very different, with the first band she shacks up with sleeping on the floor of a grimy bedsit in between their manager Brian herding them to recording sessions and gigs.  After being discarded by the band member she's been sleeping in favour of his girl friend, she 'trades up', joining the entourage of Donald Sumpter's vaguely Marc Bolan-like singer Steve and his group.  At first this seems an improvement, with Steve seemingly treating her with a degree of respect.  Things quickly go awry when she declines the opportunity to engage in a threesome with Steve and the Collinson twins, (who appear uncredited, have no dialogue and get their knockers out - they'd have to wait a couple while longer before getting their big break in the 1971 Hammer lesbian vampire romp Twins of Evil).  The end result of this is that Sally finds herself unceremoniously passed from Steve' van to that of rival band Sweaty Betty (portrayed by real life band Opal Butterfly), whilst both vehicles are careering down a motorway.  Unfortunately, just after she is bundled into Sweaty Betty's van, the other van crashes into a stationary truck, killing Steve, (prefiguring the real Marc Bolan's death in.a road accident by seven years).

The film then takes an even darker turn as Sweaty Betty become worried that Sally is a potential witness to their involvement in the fatal crash, turning to their domineering manager, Morrie, to resolve the situation Sally finds herself packed off to the country mansion used by Morrie's various acts when they need to hie from the public eye.  Following a police raid led by Neil Hallet's moralistic detective, who is determined to bust Opal Butterfly for something, be it drugs or the fatal crash, Sally finds herself alone at the mansion, tripping out from LSD she has ingested to prevent the police from finding it.  She's rescued by Wesley, another of Morrie's performers, who initially seems far more sensitive and sympathetic than the various musicians she has previously encountered.  However, with Sweaty Betty released on bail after being arrested for possession and Morrie's arrival at the house, things take a downward turn.  Morrie leaves Sally in no doubt as to her lowly status as a groupie - she's no more than a chattel.  When she ill advisedly threatens to expose Sweaty Betty's involvement in the crash, Morrie intimidates and humiliates her in front of Sweaty Betty and Wesley, the latter revealing his utter spinelessness in his failure to protect her.  The film ends with Sally walking away from the mansion and the grimy world of pop.

Packing a lot of incident into its less than ninety minute running time, Groupie Girl is hugely effective, presenting an unflinchingly downbeat picture of the pop business.  Never veering from its purpose, it relentlessly exposes the grime beneath the glamour, revealing the reality of being in a seventies pop group as being a never-ending round of grotty bedsits, rusty vans, cheap hotel rooms and sweaty gigs in provincial venues.  Whilst, today, none of this might seem surprising, let alone shocking, back in 1970, when Groupie Girl was released, the pop industry's public image was still very much that of glamourous, pampered lifestyles, with performers earning big money, living in luxury and hob-nobbing with celebrities.  The closest any of the acts in the film get to the celebrity lifestyle is when Steve and his group attend a part thrown by 'that guy off the telly'. which quickly degenerates into a series of puerile sex games designed to allow various middle aged, middle class pseudo intellectuals and semi-celebrities to get off with young pop performers and their groupies.  The movie also makes clear that most of the performers never see much of the money they make, their finances and careers being controlled by unscrupulous middle aged gangsters like Morrie, or wheeler dealer spivs like Brian, (played by James Beck, Dad's Army's wheeler dealer spiv Private Walker).

Ford's direction is exemplary here, with neither a scene nor a line of dialogue wasted.  He brings an almost documentary like verity to the film, efficiently chronicling Sally's ever darker journey into the seamy side of the pop industry.  (Some discussions of the film highlight an early sequence in the film, featuring Sally and the first group she hooks up with engaging in a series of Beatle-esque antics around London, which look they should be in a Dick Lester film, as being jarring and out of place.  However, it's purpose, surely, is to emphasise Sally's initial fantasy-like view of the pop industry, making the contrast to the reality of the industry she is subsequently exposed to, more stark).  The fact that various incidents in the film are clearly inspired by actual events - most notably the police raid on Sweaty Betty, which is closely modeled on the 1967 drug bust at Keith Richards' Sussex mansion - reinforces the film's air of authenticity.

Despite being marketed as a 'sex film', Ford films all of the sex scenes in a matter-of-fact fashion, characterised more by desperate opportunism on the part of the participants, rather than eroticism.  The cast generally performs well, with Sumpter outstanding as the detached, would be superstar Steve and Opal Butterfly acquitting themselves well as the, frankly, pretty obnoxious Sweaty Betty.  For Esme Johns, who portrays Sally, Groupie Girl was to be her one and only known film performance. A former Stripper, she gives Sally the right degree of teenaged petulance and whiny disappointment as she realises that the life of a groupie is anything but glamourous.  A gritty piece of exploitation, Groupie Girl is something of a minor classic.  A minor classic which proved to be very lucrative for  veteran exploitation producer Stanley Long when he sold the US distribution rights to AIP for £50,000 against a budget of £16,000.  Featuring a great soundtrack provided by several now mostly forgotten groups like Opal Butterfly, English Rose and The Salon Band, Groupie Girl deserves to be better remembered.



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