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The American Astronaut
Reviewed by Shane Ivey, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Cory McAbee (Writer, Director, Star)
Genre:   Comedy / Musical / Space Western
Released:   2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   9/10 (What Is This?)

If you go into Cory McAbee's The American Astronaut with a straight face, you deserve what you get. Any film that bills itself as "a musically driven space western" has pretty much laid it all out on the table. It's going to be campy. It's going to be silly. There's only one question left: is this good camp, or bad camp?

With The American Astronaut we're in luck, because camp doesn't get any better than this. In fact, calling it camp isn't really fair. The American Astronaut doesn't wear labels comfortably. Too wicked to be camp, too earnest to be satire, too odd to be a straight-up comedy, it's all of those things, with a soundtrack so good you'd feel cheated if it hadn't been integral to the film.

The American Astronaut is the inspired work of artist / actor / musician / filmmaker Cory McAbee and BNS Productions, home of his experimental musical group The Billy Nayer Show. Astronaut brings the band's music and storytelling together with a handful of Broadway performers, the lowest-rent sets a space musical can buy, and enough enthusiasm to make it all gel.

McAbee stars as Samuel Curtis, a space trucker making his rounds through the solar system in a rickety slab of a space ship, moving deliveries from Earth to Jupiter to Venus and parts in between. Bringing a package to a the Ceres Crossroads, a desolate bar on a more desolate asteroid, Curtis takes on a complex delivery job which might land him enough cash to retire in South America in style, meets his old friend and dance partner the Blueberry Pirate, wins a dance competition, and barely escapes a mass-murdering psychopathic professor who's been dogging his trail for years. The job takes Curtis to an all-male mining colony on Jupiter (where he's to trade a real girl - or what will grow into one, anyway - for the local hero, The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast), a ranch-house lost in the middle of space, and a clan of inbred Southern Belles in need of a new man on Venus.

Didn't I tell you it was going to be silly?

The story kicks into comedy at once. Two rural toughs corner Curtis in the bathroom and intimidate him with the most menacing song-and-dance number I've ever seen. The foreman of the Jupiter mine exudes square 1950s father-figure intensity as he barters away his young hero for a real girl. The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast proudly wears a thin brassy costume straight out of a 1930s Flash Gordon serial. I haven't even gotten to the Venusian belles, or Curtis belting out the Billy Nayer Show classic, "The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass." And the insanity of the murderous Professor Hess raises just enough surreal fear to give it all a little balance.

Shot in a grainy, stark black and white more reminiscent of Treasure of the Sierra Madre than Commander Cody and the Radar Men from the Moon, The American Astronaut takes its low budget for all it's worth, playing up its retro feel in the cheap furniture of Curtis's space ship, the still paintings that serve to illustrate the ship's flight through space, the New Jersey basement standing in for the Ceres Crossroads, and a gleeful lack of attention to anything resembling physics. If you're looking for an accurate treatment of gravity, interplanetary travel, or the weather on Venus, you're missing the point entirely.

The soundtrack to The American Astronaut should be available sometime in October 2001; listen to excerpts on the website, and if it sounds like your cup of tea you won't go wrong buying it. Look for the movie on the film festival circuit, and in limited release in October 2001 in New York and November in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and check the website for other release dates. The American Astronaut is indie filmmaking at its best, clever and iconoclastic, unpretentious, rather demented, and unafraid to be goofy, embracing the limitations of low budget and low profile to create a show that's purely fun. It's not for everyone, but you'll be awfully glad if it's for you.

Shane Ivey is Producer for RevolutionSF.

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