This past June, 59-year-old Cyndi Lauper—an enduring and consistently surprising presence on the American pop-music scene—won a Tony award for her score to the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. The accolade was a remarkable achievement for the Queens, N.Y. native, particularly given that it was for her debut in the medium. But let us flash back 26 years to 1987 when Lauper, then known primarily as a peppy, kooky pop singer with a string of hits behind her, was gearing up for a debut of a different sort. She’d been cast in her first acting role, in Vibes, a high-concept comedy about a pair of hapless psychics who travel to Ecuador in order to help a shady figure obtain a mystical golden relic. Unfortunately, unlike Kinky Boots, the outcome wasn’t particularly rewarding.
The portents were ominous from the beginning. Dan Aykroyd was cast as the male lead, but bailed because he felt uneasy about Lauper’s intuitive acting style. As Lauper recalls in her 2012 memoir: “We did a reading together…I was totally green, and nobody told me how to do it. And when Dan saw what I did, I guess he felt my approach was just wrong and he kept saying, ’How are you going to talk to your spirit guide?’” Aykroyd was replaced by Jeff Goldblum, but another setback followed when original director Ron Howard, who’d recently hit big with Splash and Cocoon, suddenly dropped out, leaving relative rookie Ken Kwapis (Follow That Bird) to take over.
It’s easy to see what displeased critics and audiences alike at the time of the film’s release. An admittedly intriguing comedic premise (psychic beauty-school dropout and psychometrist museum-worker nerd team up to solve crimes using their special powers) is frittered away through a combination of leaden-footed pacing, bizarre tonal fluctuations from light comedy to brutal violence, and Kwapis’s borderline non-existent direction: In the convoluted final third, which sees a host of thinly-drawn characters descend upon the mist-shrouded Andes to quibble over the glowing relic, the actors appear completely unaware of what’s going on. (If they’re lost, what chance does the audience have?) Just as much of an endurance test: James Horner’s insistent, literally over-blown panpipe score; a particularly low-impact turn from a foppish Julian Sands as the villain; and some awful cultural tourism. The beautiful Ecuadorian landscapes are utilised as no more than a trampling ground for a gaggle of buffoonish outsiders, while the locals are portrayed as clueless, jobless, pan pipe-tooting onlookers. We discover that the single Hispanic character to be afforded any sort of characterisation is nicknamed “Burrito.”
Yet Vibes’s most egregious failing is the astonishing lack of chemistry between the mismatched lead pair. Like two repelling magnets, Goldblum (on horribly smarmy form as Nick) and Lauper (as the dotty Sylvia) demonstrate in their performances a devastating rebuttal to the old maxim that “opposites attract”; the supposedly good-natured sparring in which their characters indulge (he calls her “bananahead,” she calls him a “talking frankfurter”) seems laced with real venom. Nick and Sylvia’s putative romance, crucial to our investment in the narrative, is laughably unconvincing, and Lauper confirms in her memoir a behind-the-scenes enmity which palpably transfers to the screen: “He [Goldblum] was really awful…a strange fellow…[W]e did a love scene, and suddenly he put his big fat hands all over my face. I said, ’Let me tell you something—I don’t like nobody touching my face, okay’.” Bogey and Bacall this was not.
At least Lauper gives a game, sprightly performance. Like Madonna, who had transitioned to the screen in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, she peddles an appealingly light subversion of her pop-cultural persona, even if the character afforded her by writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel is a condescending and two-dimensional lower-class-broad-with-low-self-esteem type. It’s telling that the most affecting relationship in the film is between Lauper and “Sophie,” her non-existent spiritual guide. The film’s only other pleasures are likewise performance-based. There’s a brief, amusingly unhinged turn from Peter Falk as a likeable rogue, an odd cameo from troubadour Van Dyke Parks as a gruff doctor, while a (kind of) fresh-faced Steve Buscemi is fun as Sylvia’s seedy, money-grubbing boyfriend. Finally, though Vibes fails to qualify for so-bad-its-good status, there’s a perverse, frame-to-frame quasi-enjoyment in puzzling over how such errant nonsense ever made it through all the required channels to reach the screen.
The film’s failure stung Lauper, who wrote: “Probably I was never meant to work in movies…Vibes really hurt my career, which some people would take in stride, but I couldn’t.” But, after all, she did survive it, and the experience would have surely been a long way from her mind when she accepted the Tony this June. Kwapis’s film deservedly resides in the trashcan of movie history, but as an example of a stumbling block to be overcome by an adventurous and restless creative talent like Lauper, it’s of some inspirational value; its vibes were surely toxic enough to have killed the career of a lesser mortal.
Ashley Clark is a freelance film journalist and programmer based in London, U.K. His writing has appeared in Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Reverse Shot, Moving Image Source, The Guardian, and several other publications.