William Friedkin’s first film was Good Times, a Sonny and Cher vehicle that plays as two quite distinct films. The first is a series of mild, inoffensive parodies of different genres, albeit with surprisingly elaborate mise-en-scenes, and tends to revolve around Sonny. At the start of the film, Sonny and Cher visit a movie producer, Mr. Mordicus, played by George Saunders, but only Sonny is really interested in the big screen, so he tends to be the main character in these genre parodies, which take up about half of the film. For the most part, they play as Sonny’s bid for a serious acting career, but it’s a big step from being one half of a lovable singing duo to a compelling comic actor, so the jokes and the tone don’t always land – especially since Sonny often seems to be trying to shed his folkier roots in favour of a more angular persona, not unlike 60s singer-songwiters who went solo in the 70s and beyond. In addition, these parodies tend to gravitate Good Times away from Sonny and Cher’s natural rapport, since Cher is pretty much reduced to window dressing here, present only as a singer rather than an actor, and even then forced to sing genre pieces that don’t reflect her genuine style or range.
The second part of Good Times is much more evocative, and focuses on Sonny and Cher as they wander around Los Angeles in between meeting with Mr. Mordicus and planning their film together. These ambling scenes, which take them from Hollywood to the Watts Towers, immerse us in the cruisey rhythm of Los Angeles in the 60s, which is in turn associated predominantly with Cher, who spends most of her time ambling, lounging or doodling fashion ideas. This love of wandering is the reason why Cher stays away from the movie-making side of things – “Want to make a movie?” “No” “Why?” “Because I like what I’m doing” – meaning that only Cher is really true here to the breezy rapport of the Sonny and Cher brand as it stood at the end of the 60s. In other words, Good Times works best when it’s just a reality series – “At Home with Sonny and Cher,” or “Los Angeles with Sonny and Cher” – and at its worst when it takes place in the movie industry, since Sonny ultimately seems to be “parodying” genre to flatter the movie studios into taking him seriously as a genuine crossover prospect.
From a contemporary perspective, it’s kind of weird to see Cher sidelined in this way, since she’s clearly the talent – a better singer, better actor and better looking. At times, Good Times plays like Sonny’s frantic recognition that Cher has more natural presence than he does, meaning the film shifts quite vertiginously between the languorous naturalism of Cher and the hyperactive compensations of Sonny. Sonny’s voice is especially awful – really grating and out of tune – and the film seems to acknowledge it, especially during a Tarzan parody where he pretty much yells for twenty minutes. To some extent, Friedkin compensates by situating Sonny within a broader menagerie of animal sounds, including some surprisingly bold stunts involving big cats, while also opting for an animation aesthetic that makes Sonny’s delivery less jarring than it might otherwise have been. To his credit, Friedkin also segues this sequence back into the best fusion of the film’s two worlds – a terrific moment when Sonny’s Tarzan retreats to his treehouse, which is fitted out with mid-century appliances and fixtures, where he wryly criticises the one-dimension way that his character is represented on screen.
For the most part, Good Times thus works as a cinema of attractions, not unlike a modern channel of random YouTube clips – and I watched it on YouTube, since it’s not available anywhere else in Australia. In terms of its 60s context, Friedkin’s film feels more attuned to television – flicking through channels – than cinema, especially since the genre parodies also seem more attuned to television genres than to film genres. At times, it’s also like a multimodal happening, or a variety show, as Friedkin cycles through every technique imaginable to bring us close to Sonny and Cher, anticipating the extraordinary editing of The Night They Raided Minsky’s, his tribute to the burlesque spectacles of the 1920s. Friedkin has said that this was his favourite film to make, and that contagious pleasure is what finally sustains the film – the vicarious experience of participating in it, rather than the direct pleasure of watching it – which, again, aligns it with more participatory forms of 60s textuality.
It’s also fascinating to watch Friedkin harnessing his craft, and developing elaborate set pieces, since for such a disposable film, Good Times is remarkably well shot and staged. That vision really comes into its own during the lyrical closing sequence, which plays like a pivotal moment in Friedkin’s discovery of himself as a director. This final sequence cuts between Sonny, who is riding through the Los Angeles streets on his motorcycle, and Cher, who is waiting for him at home. Gradually, though, it becomes clear that Sonny is never going to arrive home again, as Friedkin superimposes the cityscape over Cher’s face, and the two converge for one final tremulous meeting outside the Department of Water and Power Building. While there hasn’t been any overt conflict between Sonny and Cher, there’s a tacit awareness here that their paths will soon diverge, as Friedkin reaches for the incipient language of music video to bring their multimodal happening to a fluid and provisional climax.
Only now do we return to the opening rendition of “I’ve Got You Babe,” as Friedkin cuts to Sonny and Cher doing what they do best – wandering through Los Angeles, returning once more to the Department of Water and Power Building, which they now peruse by the light of day. This building is renowned for showcasing Los Angeles’ electricity by night, when it is lit up inside, and the city’s water system by day, when the pond outside is more visible and prominent. By splitting themselves between the day and night vistas of the building, Sonny and Cher gesture towards music video as an inchoate medium that is both electrical and fluid, both continuous and discontinuous, but not quite formulated at this point in time. Yet even this slight hint of the music videos to come – the music videos that Cher would master – is enough to fulfil the film’s ambling aspirations, as Friedkin shifts into full LA pastoral mode, and the streets of Hollywood segue into flowers, trees, livestock and Californian countryside.
In other words, Good Times ends by moving away from narrative altogether, opting instead for the beautifully disarming juxtapositions that typify the best music video. In this version of the 60s, the wandering moods of Sonny and Cher were yearning for a fusion of music and cinema that didn’t yet exist – and which the film tries to address by alternating between purely musical and knowingly cinematic sequences, and between musical numbers and increasingly abstract bursts of high-intensity sound. In the end, though, these sequences aren’t really true to the mood of Sonny and Cher’s songs, just as the film itself feels curiously dissociated from what is finally an experimental music video for “I’ve Got You Babe,” split between the opening credits and closing images. Everything that occurs in between is perhaps necessary for Sonny, Cher and Friedkin to glimpse this music video lexicon, but for the most part Good Times is more memorable for what it helped nurture, especially in Cher and Friedkin’s careers, even if the fun of creating and participating in it is pretty contagious too.