What do you say when your favorite movie is one that’s been written about over, and over again; a cultural icon with a subculture surrounding it that often eclipses the film itself, like the traveling Deadhead movement (of which I was a part) often eclipsed the music of the Grateful Dead?
Well, in the case of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I say–‘Don’t dream it, be it.’
I first encountered “Rocky Horror”–or a clip from it–in 1980, when I was a media-conscious, sci-fi and horror loving, precocious 9 year old. It was in a short feature about cult films, a term I didn’t even understand at the time, on Siskel and Ebert’s “Sneak Previews” show on PBS. The song “Science Fiction Double Feature”, and the red lips against a background as black as the midnight which has always been the film’s traditional screening time, instantly captivated me.
The song and the image stayed with me, but it wasn’t until the next year, when I was ten, that I finally saw the film, at a science fiction convention in Chattanooga. No, I didn’t understand much of it at the time, but I did love the music, the bright colors and extravagant set design, and the sense of fun. And, as the single song from it had before, the film stayed with me.
I started attending “Rocky Horror” regularly at midnight in my teens, at two different theaters in my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. By then, of course, I did understand the film, and its particular appeal to me–an appeal I heard echoed by many people, including RHPS fan club president Sal Piro: Acceptance. Achieving your dreams, however crazy or socially unacceptable they might seem to other people. That’s a message that’s right there in the movie: the alien scientist Frank N. Furter not only plays God, like Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein before him, but he crosses gender lines both in his manner of dress, his body language, and choice of sexual partners. He’s not the villain of the film, as many misinterpret, but the Dionysian anti-hero at its very heart. Frank is a tragic hero with two fatal flaws–his own ego, and the social moment he finds himself in (1970s rural America). His actions and motives are both questionable and bravely heroic. He’s a hero the poet Byron would have approved of–even the film’s original poster, less famous than the iconic ‘lips’ poster, trumpeted Frank’s hero status. But he dies at the end, because social order must be upheld.
But the words of one of the film’s songs, “Don’t Dream It, Be It”, have become a credo for many of the film’s fans, and it’s a vision even the film’s cast shares. Barry Bostwick signed my RHPS banner with those very words just a few weeks ago at a convention. That’s why the film’s made a cumulative ton of money over the years; why it’s stayed in rotation at midnight for decades–because, underneath all the decadent fun and loud, raucous trappings, there are two persistent visions that are really one: in this space, in this place, we accept you, no matter how odd the rest of the world thinks you are. And–if you have a dream, you can achieve it, whether it’s dressing like a movie star–of either gender–making a creature on a laboratory table come to life, or writing a book (or many books). “Don’t Dream It, Be It’, Rocky Horror said to me–and many people–in the late 1970s. It’s still saying it today.