If a resource-starved alien civilization descended upon earth today what do you think they might be planning to mine? Nitrogen, perhaps? Maybe some argon? Well, what if they were after something a little less tangible? Something abstract, yet something almost as prevalent as the elements of our atmosphere; what if they were after our music, man? And not just the music, but the vibrations music creates. Good vibrations, man. Good vibrations.
That's how I imagine the studio pitch went for the bonkers 1970, Olivia Newton-John-led sci-fi/musical combo (perhaps the only of its kind?) film Toomorrow.
A brief overview: a tired and frustrated alien life-form (known as John Williams in the flick) from the Alphoid race lives in London, where he masquerades as an anthropologist. His main mission is to gather data in hopes of finding a cure to Alphoid ails. During one of his seemingly routine reports back to his Alphoid leaders, he remarks that in his 3,000 years on earth he's found: NOTHING. Not a thing. Humans are dumb and like silly things such as sex and talking. But then, Williams is told that a new, potentially life-changing musical vibration has been discovered by the Alphoid supercomputer. The vibration, according to the supercomputer's findings has some sort of curative power that will help heal Alphoids, and (I think) make them stronger. It's not entirely clear, but they want those damn vibrations and they want them now. Williams is skeptical but agrees to return to earth with a new, more focused mission of harnessing the sounds. And, of course, those vibrations can only be found pouring out of the little known pop-dance outfit, Toomorrow. The extra O is, according to the band's lead guitarist Ben, because the group is just "too much. We're too...morrow." And thus, Williams begins his undercover quest to utilize the group's vibrations, which we found out, are all due to a special amplifier called the Tonalizer, created by the group's ace organist, Vic Cooper. The four members of Toomorrow all live together, in the same dormitory, as they are students of the London College of Art.
The "B" story here is that Toomorrow has been selected to fill in for a group at some sort of London-based pop festival and have very little time to rehearse. They try the cafeteria but are shut down by the administration. Williams walks in, casually, during their short lunchtime performance and offers his home as a rehearsal space. The band unwittingly agrees when they hear he has recording equipment and off they go, to a complete stranger's home to play synth-driven, Beatles and Bee Gees inspired pop. And, yes, you guessed it; once their rehearsal is through, they're shot right into the Alphoid spacecraft where they're told they'll now be sort of enslaved to the Alphoids, and will be required to teach the people of the Alphoid population how to make the sweet, soothing sounds that burst through the Tonalizer. The band, not nearly as freaked out as you'd think they might be after being SUCKED INTO A SPACECRAFT, are worried that they'll miss their gig. The Alhpoids patiently explain that they've been trying to duplicate the vibrations through a computer program. The computer-generated music is played much to the chagrin of Toomorrow; it is without melody, rhythm or anything that would define it as a "song." The Alphoids concede that they need help in composition and particularly in the "heart and emotion" department as these are two elements necessary to make groovy-music. (It was the 70s, after all) This prompts Newton-John to deliver one of the most hilarious lines of the film: "You can't switch on heart or emotion. It comes through the people you play to. You switch it on together." And, naturally, the plan changes from a simple kidnapping of four people to a mass person snatching, taking place at the very pop festival that Toomorrow felt would be their biggest break. And so on.
Plot-wise, the film is pretty thin. We don't ever find out just what Alphoids are suffering from and the ending proves to be cheesy and somewhat unresolved. However, it's still a fun watch.
According to some sources (read: an Olivia Newton-John fansite1), the film's initial purpose was to serve as a launch-pad for Toomorrow the band. Apparently Don Kirshner, the architect behind the Monkees, threw the four together and wrangled cash for the film. Of course, Toomorrow came nowhere near the kind of success the Monkees enjoyed--this film and its soundtrack would be the only artifacts the band left behind. Said Newton-John on the film itself: "Our film died a little death and it was all a bit of a shambles. But it was a good experience."2
That's the sort of thing that happens when you've got the ulterior motive of making a superstar pop-group; it detracts from the film itself and mucks things up in general. It's rumored that Kirshner won't allow the film to be screened in his lifetime, and songwriter (and former boyfriend of Newton-John) Bruce Welsh said "The film was a disgrace."
However, underneath all the bad attitudes and money hungry motives, it's actually a really funny film with a bit of heart. Yes, some laughs are derived out of the hurried, poor performances from the cast as well as the cornball writing. But, some laughs come from a subtle self-awareness the film has. For example, an Alphoid is sent down to earth in hopes of seducing Vic Cooper and stealing the Tonalizer. She is named Johnson and receives a crash course on sex and seduction by going to the movies. But most importantly: her name is Johnson. Though it's minor, it's such a funny little detail and lets us know that the filmmaker at least had a bit of fun making this flick.
And, I may be alone on this, but the film has heart. It's a simplistic, perhaps overwrought heart, but it's there in the narrative, couched in the lovely--albeit tired and overused--idea that good music (or art) can't simply be replicated and garner the same effect. It needs a soul and a beating heart to come to life. Ironic, perhaps, that the band in this movie was completely manufactured by the show business machine. Although, considering the swift failure of Toomorrow the band, the idea that music is an emotional, heartfelt thing, seems to win out after all.