You’ve heard about Alan Smithee, right? He’s a man with many film directing credits who doesn’t actually exist. For many years, Alan Smithee was the name used for a film’s directing credit when the real director, for one reason or another, wanted to remove his name from the film. The name was discontinued in 2000. What happens, though, when an actor wants to be disassociated with a film? Well, about the only thing they can do is ask for their name to be removed from all credits and press for a film. That is precisely what happened with our film today…one of the lead actors saw an early screening and was so ashamed he asked for his name to be removed. We’re heading off to military school in 1980’s Up the Academy.
Our film focuses on four troubled young men who are shipped off to Wienberg Military Academy by their well-to-do families. We have the heir to an organized crime family, Chooch (Ralph Macchio), a faith healer’s son, Ike (Wendell Brown), the son of an Arab sheik, Hash (Tommy Citera), and Oliver (J. Hutchison), whose governor father is up for re-election. In charge over these new recruits is Major Vaughn Liceman (Ron Leibman)…who is, of course, a real jerk. Other faculty members include the effeminate gym teacher Sisson (Tom Poston), the dimwitted Commandant Causeway (Ian Wolfe), and the buxom firearms instructor, Bliss (Barbara Bach). Three of the four new recruits establish themselves as troublemakers from the start, but Chooch wants to fly right and focuses on his studies. Soon a fifth recruit, Rodney (Harry Teinowitz), enters the picture…because there needs to be a chubby guy (it’s a rule).
When Oliver’s girlfriend from back home, Candy (Stacey Nelkin), ends up enrolled at a nearby girls military school, the recruits plot to sneak out. They succeed, but when they return they find that Liceman knows about everything and even has compromising pictures of Oliver and Candy which he threatens to use to damage the Governor’s re-election bid. Of course, the boys assume Chooch is the snitch. They now have to plot to get the pictures back from Liceman without Chooch knowing the plan. Things get switched around, though, when Chooch gets evidence that Rodney is the guilty party. Now, our heroes hatch a new plan to get dirty photos of Liceman with Candy, get back the other photos…and then there’s something about winning a soccer game.
Up the Academy is actually “presented by” MAD Magazine. Kind of like how Animal House is actually National Lampoon’s Animal House. The film actually has nothing to do with MAD other than an extremely creepy cameo by the magazine’s mascot Alfred E Newman. An actor wearing a very accurate but nightmare-inducing Newman mask (created by Rick Baker) bookends the film. I should also mention that the film was directed by Robert Downey. If you’ve wondered why the actor is known as “Robert Downey Jr.” this is why. We’re talkin’ father and son here. In fact, the younger Downey supposedly appears in the soccer sequence. This is one of two films the senior Downey was a part of in 1980. The other is The Gong Show Movie, which doesn’t have any better a reputation than this film does.
The basic story of Up the Academy is something we’ve seen before. We have a band of misfits thrown into a situation where they must deal with an authority figure who is more than a bit full of himself. Throw in a large-breasted instructor and a childlike commander and what do you have? Well, four years after this film came out we’d call that Police Academy. Thing is, that film, which is not great cinema by any stretch of the imagination, is so much better than this one. I think a big reason for that is that whereas the recruits of Police Academy are loveable in their own stupid ways, this film is full of completely unlikable characters. Chief among them is Leibman as Major Liceman. Granted, we’re not supposed to like Liceman, but the performance is so extreme that there’s just nothing funny about it. I can’t say I blame the guy for taking his name off the movie. Perhaps Tom Poston should’ve considered the same thing. Usually a teddy bear of an actor, Poston plays a character who is essentially hinted at being a child molester. I know that MAD Magazine struggles with what is and isn’t funny at times…but folks that’s never funny.
There is a plus side to Up the Academy, though. This film may have the greatest 80’s soundtrack I never knew existed! A whopping 22 songs show up in the film, many with a slightly punk feel. A mere 10 songs made it on to the actual soundtrack album release. There are a few instantly recognizable tunes. Probably my favorite scene in the whole film is a montage sequence set to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender,” which was released just two years before the movie. Other great songs include “Kickin’ up a Fuss” by Blow-up, Pat Benatar’s “We Live for Love,” and “Coquette” by Cheeks. Though most of the film has little in the way of what I’d call skilled craftsmanship, the integration of the songs is very well done.
So, my experience with Up the Academy was both good and bad. The film itself is bad. No question…very very bad. However, the soundtrack was a real treat. I already have a bit of an obsession with songs from 80’s movies. This film opened up a treasure trove of songs that I will be looking into further. Though I have no desire to ever watch this film again, I’d listen to it on my iPod in a heartbeat.