Muscle Beach Party

Muscle Beach Party

Over the past year or so, the theme of what sort of books can be successfully be made into films has been touched on several times in this blog.  This begs the obvious counter-question, what sort of films can be made into books?  In order to answer this, I felt compelled to read the novelisation of the 1964 musical surfing comedy Muscle Beach Party starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, as adapted by Elsie Lee (A snip at 50p, actually worth at least £30).

Now, I don’t mind admitting I went in with low expectations.  A lighthearted romp involving sight-gags, musical numbers and characters painted with strokes so broad they may as well have used a roller do not seem like the ideal ingredients for a satisfying read.

How wrong I was.  As well as a gripping story about how a group of surfers stand up to a body-building club while a rich contessa attempts to make a gigolo out of their leader, this book has everything.

Social comment: ‘Her hand caught warmly in Frankie’s, Dee Dee wandered where he led, across the sands and away from the sounds of civilization, If you can call it that, she thought vaguely’.

The weight of history: ‘”Like maybe brains do count for more than brawn?” Dee Dee suggested.  “Like maybe that’s what our pappies were proving against Mr. Hitler?”‘

Existentialism: ‘”Honey, the beach is free,” he said with soft intensity… ‘the surf keeps rolling, rolling, with a rhythm nothing can match – and your life’s your own as long as you keep looking up and riding the curl… Isn’t that enough?”‘

Indeed, I would say that Muscle Beach Party has so much scope, so much depth of insight, it is a candidate for the elusive Great American Novel, if not the best novel of the 20th Century.

I, of course, don’t mean this.  It’s a load of old shit.  It is, however, cheerful shit that wouldn’t utterly wreck your life if you were to read it.

What’s really interesting is the fact that occasionally, Elsie Lee does a little bit more than meet her brief of turning the script into prose.  There’s some genuine characterisation slipped in here and there, with some imagination employed in working out what lies behind the actions of these cardboard characters.  You get a sense that, at least over the weekend she was working on this thing, she actually cared about them.

And it’s what happens in that space between what she had to do and what she did do that you can see, in its most basic form, art occurring.  It’s the literary equivalent of the pretty pattern on an ancient pot, or the little joke sneaked in to a railway station announcement.  It didn’t really need to be there, it seemed, on a practical level.  But someone felt compelled to put it there anyway.  It’s the same urge that ultimately leads to Les Demoiselles D’Avignon and Ulysses.  It’s the reason why something as apparently defined by it’s function as Clifton Suspension Bridge also possesses it’s own peculiar beauty.  It’s art.  It’s hidden in the cheapest, shittest, most cynical products of humankind.  It’s all around us.

(For more on the ‘Beach Party’ films, of which Muscle Beach Party is the second, see this interesting article).


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