Abel Ferrara has described Go Go Tales as “Cheers meets The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” Really it’s closer to a remix of Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, with a foul-mouthed Sylvia Miles in the role of Tommy Lee Jones’s intimidating Axeman, Grace Jones subbing for Dusty and Lefty on the soundtrack, and the Johnson women stripped down to their panties. Enter that force of nature known as Asia Argento, who takes the stage in one scene to perform a mercilessly brief striptease during which she swaps saliva with one of two rottweilers; the other one, played by Bob Hoskins, barks orders offstage, trying to keep patrons in their seats and their paws off the girls. Welcome to the seedy demimonde of the club Paradise, where Ferrara probes the dreams of lives less ordinary, including his own.
Like Prairie Home Companion, Go Go Tales is a serio-comic survey of a community on life support, and as Ferrara’s camera elegantly prowls the Paradise’s rooms and hallways, we catch glimpses of people whose survival depends on the subsistence of the club and the resolve of its emcee, Ray Ruby (Willem Dafoe). The club’s chef, Sandman (Pras Michel), hawks organic, bite-sized hot dogs and thinks he works inside a gourmet kitchen, and in a notably tense scene, a girl expertly uses her body to get an agent to commission her screenplay. These characters are half-conceived (they’re as featherweight as the snippy ballerinas from Suspiria), but as the film builds to a depressing talent show that allows the Paradise strippers to give expression to their presumably true callings, Go Go Tales achieves a strange poignancy, illuminating the failures of the club while holding a mirror up to the rebellious Ferrara’s struggles as a filmmaker. In this way, the film is the director’s most confessional since Dangerous Game.
The Paradise’s stripteases are almost tasteful compared to what goes on at the Bada Bing and Stardust, suggesting a father figure working behind the camera. This is not to say the film is without sex appeal, because Ferrara has never made more arousing use of sound in the way the songs on the soundtrack inform the rhythm of scenes. The propulsive, almost perpetual use of music gives the film the feel of a musical, and the idea of musical numbers is suggested in canny ways, like an early montage of life inside in the club, which includes the moneyman played by Roy Dotrice clicking on different rows of his Excel-like accounting program, or the scene where a bus parks in front of the club and a group of Korean businessmen walk into the club through a revolving door only to come right back outside, ostensibly horrified by what they saw inside. The only thing missing here is for Hoskins’s baron to break out into frustrated song and dance.
Go Go Tales begins with Ray daydreaming on a couch in his office while a ballerina ties her slippers. This poetic interplay of images gives the impression that, to Ray, dreams are his only medium for success. His desire, then, to win the lottery—by any means possible—is his way of forcing those dreams to fruition, and implicit in his deceitfulness is a need to maintain a sense of integrity while exploiting a callous capitalist system. How interesting that Lilian (Miles), despite her repeated threats to sell the Paradise to Bed, Bath and Beyond (do not miss Miles’s performance of the song “Bed, Bath and Beyond” during the closing credits!), is comfortable hanging out inside the Paradise. She’s probably blowing hot air because she understands that Ray, like Ferrara, is a relic, and keeping the Paradise afloat is a means of preserving a lost New Yorkness. (Pity that the film doesn’t feel as if were actually filmed anywhere near the Big Apple.)
When Ray says that his dancers are like family to him, there’s no doubting his sincerity—because only a man with delusions of fatherhood would insist on employing women whose less-than-mad dancing skills are at least one reason for his financial crisis. “It’s coming our way,” Ray says, over and over again—to himself, to Lilian, and one of his investors, Johnie (Matthew Modine), who seduces Argento’s Monroe with the funniest line in the film: “I have the biggest salon in Staten Island.” When someone casually asks Ray how his reality show is coming, it’s already clear that his nightmare is not unlike that of a man trying to keep his family from starving—or an artist struggling to create. Or maybe he’s just trying to revive an ancient way of living and feeling. And so it is that Go Go Tales ends with a confession from the emcee that may as well have been recited by Ferrara himself—to his actors, his fans, and anyone who has ever financed or passed on one of his projects. Consider it a knowing Ferrara’s own striptease act.