Stating that Apple Pie isn’t the weirdest ’70s transmission from Manhattan’s artistic fringe might be accurate, but the remark downplays the film’s peculiarity. For while Apple Pie mostly lacks the psychosexual perversity one usually associates with grungy 16-millimeter experiments issuing from Alphabet City squats or SoHo lofts, the picture is strange enough to alienate most viewers. Yet after weaving its way through a number of bizarre situations, some of which have a John Waters-esque satirical edge and some of which are merely freeform expressions, writer-director Howard Goldberg’s movie resolves into an epic musical number, resulting in several of the most joyous minutes you’ll encounter in ’70s cinema. On a personal note, that represents what I’ve enjoyed most about this project: making unexpected discoveries through persistent archaeology.
Goldberg builds Apple Pie around Tony Azito, a Julliard-trained actor/dancer who found most of his success on the stage but also enjoyed a minor screen career in the ’80s and ’90s prior to his death at the age of 46 in 1995. Playing a number of characters, most prominently an eccentric rich kid who occasionally flits around town in a bat costume, Azito is in nearly every scene, and he’s an unlikely leading man. Gangly and very tall, with a gaunt face and a receding hairline, he’s the physical type most directors would cast as a background creep. Azito modulates his voice absurdly, like he’s either channeling psychosis or practicing different cartoon characters. He shimmies his body at random intervals, as if he’s having seizures or indulging sudden urges to boogie. Therefore one of Apple Pie’s most intriguing (or infuriating) aspects is that Goldberg lets Tony be Tony, no matter where the performer’s singular muse takes him.
If you’re wondering why the plot of the film hasn’t yet been described, it’s because only certain portions of Apple Pie have contiguous narrative. The first scenes involve a gangster of some sort meeting with cronies (one of whom is played by future David Letterman costar Calvert DeForrest). Then the picture shifts into its most heavily plotted sequence, during which Jacques (Azito) fakes his own kidnapping in order to rob his parents. (Playing Jacques’ father is NYC oddball Brother Theodore.) This material transitions into a performance-art/surrealism passage, during which Jacques (in his bat costume) meets a bunch of artists on a rooftop. One of them, played by future TV star Veronica Hamel, wears an outlandish costume and demonstrates her talent: causing her face to disappear. It’s all quite bewildering, especially because of Azito’s goofy dialogue (“I don’t cry when I’m watching porno—I’m into emotional S&M!”). Plus what’s a downtown freakshow without at least one scene of characters smearing each other with food? This stuff goes on and on and on, even though Apple Pie is only 80 minutes long, until Goldberg segues into his final sequence.
As bright as the rest of the film is dark, the final sequence is a dance number on a city street. Azito strolls onto the block, coaxes kids to start banging out a rhythm with found objects, and starts dancing. Then others join the fun—women exiting a restaurant, locals stepping out of their homes, even a wino climbing up from a pile of garbage. Once it reaches cruising altitude, the scene is a happy explosion, with some dancers on cars and fire escapes, all grooving to the same rhythm. Others have suggested this scene inspired a similar moment in Fame (1980), noting that Irene Cara, who starred in that picture, is one of the dancers in the finale of Apple Pie. Be that as it may, the dance jam is almost reason enough for those who dislike downtown artiness to explore Apple Pie. If nothing else, the dance jam is a great showcase for Azito, who later earned a Tony nomination for a 1980 revival of The Pirates of Penzance. The man could move.
Apple Pie: FREAKY