Jailbird Rock (1988, USA / Argentina)

Jailbird Rock - Robin Antin as Jessie White and Robin x as Echo

I think it was when Warden Harold Bauman (Ron Lacey), in dismissing any idea of his prisoners putting on an artistic performance, said, “They’re not here to have fun. They’re here to be miserable,” that my wife asked, “Don’t you get sick of the same, same things all the time?”. Or it could have been earlier, such as at the arrival of the prisoner who doesn’t deserve to be in prison, or the tough prisoner running the show, or the ineffectual warden and his corrupt second-in-charge, or the earnest counsellor pushing for reform… It could have been at any point in the film, really.

This is not a film of brave new ideas. It has just about every prison cliché there is, trading also off the popularity of Flashdance (1983), with the plight of a promising, ambitious dancer, Jessie Harris (Robin Antin), at its core. Jessie is a more than a little unlucky to be in prison. She comes home from school to find her stepfather beating her mother, yet again, and shoots him when he won’t stop. Almost no jury in the world would convict her, you’d think, but she cops 5 years for manslaughter.

The prison is in most respects run by a trusty, Maxine ‘Max’ Farmer (Rhonda Aldrich), who, assisted by her sidekick and lover, Ester ‘Echo’ Herrera (Robin Cleaver), controls everything - including being accountable to the guards for all prisoners being present, and allocating work detail on a daily basis. Max is lusted after, covered for and supplied with drugs by the head guard, who hopes that the protection she affords her will be repaid carnally.

Jessie shows she has a bit of dash by standing up to Echo and protecting another newly-received (and vulnerable) prisoner, Peggy Birch (Valerie Richards). Only one other prisoner, Samantha Edison (Jacquelyn Houston), appears to challenge Max’s authority. Sam and Max keep threatening to fix the other up, but neither seems to be in any great hurry.

Max doesn’t like Jessie either. She challenges her to a dance-off with Echo, but Jessie declines, saying that she has nothing to prove (while noting, one suspects, that Echo is the better dancer). Max taunts Jessie about her boyfriend. Jessie punches Max on the jaw. Max pulls a knife. Guards intervene and Jessie and her friends get sent off to isolation; Max does not. In an epiphanous moment in isolation, Jessie resolves to hold on to her dream of being a famous dancer. Wow.

In time, things start to change. The warden belatedly agrees to the variety performance, realising that it might present him with an opportunity to promote himself in the media. He bravely agrees to holding the performance not inside the prison, but in a concert hall in the city. Jessie is put in charge of training the dancers. Then, with little warning, Sam is struck in the head by an assailant wielding an iron, and is killed. Despite the known enmity between Max and Sam, Max is not treated as a suspect, no-one is put in isolation, and the show is allowed to go ahead. Go figure.

Late in the piece Max and Echo decide to join the show, Max having determined that it presents a rare opportunity to escape. The dancers, who were initially hopeless, have made rapid improvement. Jessie and Echo forge some grudging respect for each other’s dancing abilities. Ultimately the show, of course, is a triumph. The dancers dance, the singers sing, and the comedian comedes; all wonderfully, more or less. The dance items are especially remarkable because the women have never rehearsed on the complicated set. The success of the show does wonders for the women’s self-esteem. And not even Max’s climactic, dramatic attempt to escape spoils the show. Life goes on. Jessie has a nice life.

The film’s prison elements hold their own fascination. Peggy is for some reason allowed to carry around a big book of her late father’s, which she clutches at all times to her chest. Despite the warden not wanting to “get a reputation as a Club Med for wayward girls”, the requirement for the inmates to wear the prison uniform rarely seems to apply, a lapse which serves principally to remind us of 80s fashions.

My favourite scenes, though, are of the isolation cells. While being led to ‘iso’, Sam gives Jessie a big speech about their special horrors. “One thing with iso, Jessie… Your imagination alone in the dark… (It’ll) make you wish you could die, right there on the floor… You just thinking fear. That’s what iso’s about, Jessie, surviving your imagination.” The onerousness of the cells, though, seems to be undermined by the fact that the women can chat to each other through the walls… and do so constantly. Surviving your imagination therefore seems not so tricky. More problematic is the fact that the cells appear to have no toilets.

This is a terrible film. It’s naturally very 1980s (completed in 1985 but not released until three years later). Lots of big hair, lots of  80s music. Lots of bad scripting. Quite a bit of mediocre dancing. And lots of nonsense.

Jailbird Rock - Robin Antin as Jessie Harris. Valerie Gene Richards as Peggy Birch is behind her, and she is facing Rhonda Aldrich as Maxine (Max) Farmer Jailbird Rock #2 - Rhonda Aldrich as Max (Maxine Farmer), left. Jailbird Rock #3 - Robin Antin as Jessie Harris

Also known as Can’t Shake the Beat

Posted on November 22nd, 2015 at 5:10 pm. Updated on November 22nd, 2015 at 5:12 pm.

#392 in the Top 500

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