Some movies you just have to see to believe. And then there’s those you can’t believe even after you’ve seen ’em. You stagger around your mom’s basement in a stupor. Eyes bleeding, you scour the floor for empty rubbing alcohol bottles so you can reassure yourself that what you’ve just witnessed wasn’t real, that it was only some horrible chemical-induced hallucination. Rhinestone (1984), the story of how Dolly Parton trains Sylvester Stallone to be the next country music sensation, is one of those movies. It’s not a hallucination. It’s all too real.
I got really excited when I first saw the poster for Rhinestone. I thought it was a sequel to the Stallone arm wrestling film Over The Top. A sequel in which Stallone challenges Dolly Parton to become the World Inter-Gender Arm Wrestling Champ! Just look at it, they’re practically arm wrestling:
But instead of being an awesome, unauthorized ripoff of the life and wrestling career of Andy Kaufman, Rhinestone is an appalling, unauthorized ripoff of “My Fair Lady”. Except with the genders swapped. And a lot more glitter, fringe, and spittoons.
Dolly Parton is Jake, star singer at The Rhinestone, the most popular country western club in New York. Record company A&R reps keep begging her to sign recording deals, but the bar’s sleazy owner/pimp Freddie Hugo (Ron Leibman) won’t free her from her five-year exclusive contract.
So Jake makes a Faustian deal with Freddie: if she can transform a hopeless schlub into the next “Rhinestone Cowboy” in two weeks, then Freddie will tear up her contract. If Jake loses, she has to sign another five-year contract and sleep with Freddie. Jake reluctantly agrees, stipulating “[n]o weirdos, no lepers, no dead people.” I assume she’s referring to the vocal teaching arrangements, not the sexing arrangements.
Enter Sylvester Stallone as Nick, a slovenly cab driver who lives above his parents’ funeral home and has a voice like an abattoir killing floor:
Stallone commits to playing this tone-deaf talentless loser with the same conviction and naturalism he famously displayed in the role of Rocky Balboa. Except this time that commitment is totally wasted. You get the sense that either A) he’s so deluded that he truly believes he’s giving an Oscar-worthy performance or B) Stallone is being blackmailed and making this film is the only way he’ll get his son back alive.
Jake takes Nick to her backwater Tennessee hometown so he can learn firsthand what country music is really all about. Watching this movie you’d get the impression that country music is all about mud-stained overalls, cheap domestic beer, improper elocution, and missing teeth. Yeah, that sounds about right.
Most of the movie’s “humour” is centered on the culture clash between Italian-American city boy Nick and the Tennessee rural rubes. When we don’t see Nick picking fist fights with country bumpkins or being creepily propositioned by extras from the cast of Deliverance (1972), we’re “treated” to the occasional montage of him chopping wood and tending to horses. It definitely foreshadows the Siberian training montage that would later appear in Rocky IV (1985).
I don’t know what this has to do with vocal lessons, but hey, all those chore montages worked for The Karate Kid!
After a week of chopping wood and looking after livestock, Nick delivers his first public performance to the Tennessee townsfolk. Look on ye mortals and despair:
I’ve changed my mind— Stallone isn’t trying to get his son back. Stallone must’ve killed someone and has to humiliate himself like this in order to buy his victim’s family’s silence.
During another singing engagement he makes children cry and dogs run away in terror. But hey, at least he improves at the end, right? WRONG! His final performance at The Rhinestone is still a brutal assault on the ears. The only improvement is in his stage presence. He’s no longer screaming and wailing like he’s on a bad drug trip. Instead he’s shouting and pelvic-thrusting like an Elvis impersonator. An Old Elvis impersonator.
It’s enough to make you yearn for the dulcet tones of William Shatner.
And Jake wins the bet. She gets to tear up her contract with Freddie because the club audience loves it… for some reason. This movie doesn’t just require the suspension of disbelief; it requires the suspension of most major brain functions.
Thankfully when Jake joins Nick onstage for a final duet, the movie’s sound mixers had the good sense to mix the audio so her voice overpowers his. This at least makes Sly’s final song slightly less unbearable.
Throw in a predictable opposites-attract love story between Nick and Jake, a third act in which Nick rides across Manhattan on horseback to rescue Jake from being raped by Freddie Hugo, and enough glitter and fringe to clothe a whole village of Village People, and you’ve got one of the most cringe-inducing musical romcoms this side of From Justin to Kelly (2003).
To the film’s credit, Sly Stallone and Dolly Parton do have genuine onscreen chemistry that almost overcomes their cheesy groan-inducing dialogue. Parton wrote all the songs in the film, and the ones that aren’t sung by Stallone are catchy and memorable. In fact, two of the songs from the soundtrack, “God Won’t Get You” and “Tennessee Homesick Blues” went on to become top ten country singles.
It’s Stallone’s ill-advised involvement that sabotages the whole production. Why on earth did they use Sly’s real singing voice? His brother Frank Stallone is a professional singer, and a pretty good one at that. He’s been involved in many of Sly’s films, most memorably as the Street Singer in the Rocky series. Why couldn’t they just dub Frank’s voice in for Sly’s? It would’ve been such an easy fix. It only makes my murder theory all the more plausible.
Just in case Sylvester Stallone or any of his entourage ever read this, I want to state for the record my profound admiration and respect for his work. He’s more than just an action star. Stallone is a true action auteur. Not just an actor, but a writer, producer, and director as well. Rambo (2008) is the greatest action film of the last decade. Demolition Man (1993) is a brilliant work of social satire, which I firmly believe will one day enjoy the same level of reverence that RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) have today. And Over The Top (1987) still remains the best arm wrestling ever made. Hands down.
But there’s just no way I can defend a cacophonous crapfest like Rhinestone. Just what the hell was Stallone thinking when he agreed to star in a musical? The man can barely speak, let alone sing!
1 ½ Italian Stallions on Stallions out of 5
One of the worst versions of “My Fair Lady” ever made. It makes She’s All That (1999) look like it really is all that.
Stallone turned down Romancing the Stone (1984) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) to make Rhinestone.
The original screenwriter, Phil Alden Robinson, was so offended by Stallone’s reworking of his screenplay that he briefly considered having his name removed from the film’s credits, but then decided having his name on the film would look good on his resume.
According to the opening credits, this film is an adaptation of the song “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Larry Weiss.
Rhinestone was nominated for 8 RAZZIE Awards, including Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Director. It “won” 2 awards: Worst Actor (Sylvester Stallone) and Worst Original Song (“Drinkenstein”).
Directed by Bob Clark, who helmed the influential holiday flicks Black Christmas (1974) and A Christmas Story (1983) as well as Porky’s (1982) and Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983). He also directed another Lackluster Video favourite, The Karate Dog (2004), starring Jon Voight, Pat Morita, and Chevy Chase as the voice of ‘Cho Cho’.
Sylvester Stallone hosted “Saturday Night Live” on September 27, 1997. One standout sketch features Stallone, as himself, trying to save a car crash victim (Norm MacDonald) who keeps badmouthing his films. Rhinestone is the first to get trashed: