After being fired from their jobs as inept security guards, Josh (Tim Robbins) and Ivan (John Cusack) decide to start their own business as music video directors Video Aces. Josh is the artist and Ivan is the producer with unshakeable faith in his friends creative abilities. They dream of making a video for their idols, soul duo The Swanky Modes, but just as their stock in the industry is rising, they do a job at a political fundraiser and accidentally get themselves embroiled in a blackmail plot involving a local presidential candidate.
After two decades of leading roles we've gotten used to seeing John Cusack as the straight man in his films, being paired up against wild characters such as Jack Black in High Fidelity or Dan Aykroyd in Grosse Point Blank. But here Cusack takes on a different kind of role; the hyperactive smartmouth as opposed to Tim Robbins shy artistic Josh. His rat-tached entrepreneur is suited and ready to go, seeing Josh as his meal ticket. He can talk the business and take meetings, Josh can point the cameras and be creative. But when the big record labels refuse to deal with them, they're reduced to filming a dying man's living will and an awesome ad for a local restaurant.
Is there a more 80's career aspiration than to become a successful music video director? Made in 1988, this is a pleasant time capsule of the MTV generation featuring some stylish sequences, and as a film about video producers, Tapeheads is pretty reliant on its music which when heard through nostalgia is fairly enjoyable. Before making any actual money from their endeavours, the duo must first prove themselves to the one record executive (Soul Train's Don Cornelius) willing to see them with some no budget videos. Luckily, Ivan's faith in Josh is not unfounded and they manage to film some genuinely creative calling cards. Their videos would easily fit in with most of the videos featured on MTV in the 80's (but with perhaps a more prominent sense of humour).
Whilst shooting a video at the local Governor's house, they meet Samantha Gregory, a local journalist keen on making her name by getting a scoop about the Governor. Of course, like all politicians this guy's into some kinky stuff (A video of a baby food spank party featuring a young Courtney Love. Oh the shame), and one of his mistresses uses the guys video equipment to smuggle out her evidence, unknown to them. Samantha soon tracks Video Aces down and hopes to seize back the incriminating videotape, but through a slightly contrived series of events involving some poorly labelled tapes they soon have a hit video for a deceased rock band and the Governor's squad of hit-men on their backs.
Neither Cusack or Robbins were big stars in 1988. Cusack had appeared in Stand By Me and The Sure Thing, and in 1989 followed this with one of his most iconic roles, Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything...; Robbins had appeared in Howard The Duck, had a small role in Top Gun, and was about to start filming Bull Durham straight after this project. They're pretty much still raw meat at this point and although they both show talent, Robbins' Oscar win is a long way away.
According to some sources, this film was made on the extremely modest budget of $10,000 which is ridiculous. Although it times it does show a certain Michel Gondry DIY aesthetic, it doesn't look cheap. Tapeheads only managed to gross just under $350,000 but that must of been seen as a good return for the investment. Its use of and commitment to this new format of Videotape is endearing, and is a good companion piece to Gondry's farewell to VHS, Be Kind Rewind. As for what this film shows of its stars future careers, this is the kind of film you can only make as a young man, and a slight oddity of both of their filmographies. Cusack and Robbins are clearly great friends, and have worked together many times since, but usually find it more fun pitting themselves against each other, such as the face-off scene from High Fidelity.
I definitely have a soft spot for Cusack's 80's output, and though this is not typical of his usual roles and may never be seen as a true classic performance by him, it's fun enough to survive. Both still young men in this film, Cusack and Robbins have gone on to become big stars with much better roles. If i was to sum up this movie's theme and perhaps make a comment on how best to enjoy this movie, it can be seen with the respect Ivan and Josh show to the Swanky Modes. Be respectful of the past, but keep on moving forward.
Also, if you're going to check it out, it has a great sucker punch of an ending...
Save From Obscurity? Yes