Audio Archaeology: Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme (1990)

Once in preschool, my class was shown a video for a special occasion. It was a story about nursery rhymes in live action, but with all the bright colors of a cartoon. Mother Goose had disappeared and her son was looking for her. People started just… vanishing without a trace. I recall enjoying the video, but not being able to shake a sense of dread. It was a strange movie. One of the clearer memories I retained was of the Three Men in a Tub, oddly dressed, floating by in a forest, not speaking, only gesturing. To make my memories of the film even more fragmented, we ran out of time in class and the video was stopped before it was over, leaving the disappearances unresolved. Every so often I’d remember the video, but could never figure out what it was. Then one day, almost 20 years later, it came up in conversation, Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme. The solution to my years of curiosity was only a Google search away.

Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme, also called Shelley Duvall’s Rock and Rhymeland, was a made for TV movie from 1990, with frequent play on the Disney Channel during the early nineties. It’s distinctive for having music video-style production as well as starring a number of well-known musicians and actors. The musical star power alone is insane – Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry, Bobby Brown, The Stray Cats, Little Richard, ZZ Top, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle (though not in the same scenes), and that’s just hitting all the high notes.

The film follows Gordon Goose (Dan Gilroy), the adult son of Mother Goose, who can’t stand living in Rhymeland amongst all of his mother’s spastic creations, called “Rhymies”. One day, on his way to work, Little Bo Peep (Shelley Duvall) drives up and tells Gordon that his mother has disappeared. Their fears are confirmed when Itsy Bitsy Spider tells them he saw something come out of the sky and take her. Together, Gordon and Bo Peep drive through Rhymeland meeting with other nursery rhyme characters, searching for clues. They soon discover that, due to Mother Goose’s disappearance, Rhymies are vanishing from existence and if they don’t find her soon, their world will end. Pretty bleak stuff for a kid’s movie.

Does it hold up? Well, kinda. Certainly no adult will feel the same tension I did in preschool, but it’s easy to see how a kid might. If Rock ‘n’ Rhyme had been animated in the goopy TV style of the late 80s it would’ve been no more memorable than an episode of The Smurfs. The bright colors, crazy camera angles, and absurd sets of the production, coupled with the intense, mismatched fashions of the time give Rock ‘n’ Rhyme a unique feel. Cartoon-like live action strips away a lot of the goofiness that an actual made for TV cartoon would’ve accentuated, and emphasizes the drama of the situation. To my kid brain, the strange lighting, the desperation of the main character, and the actuality of people vanishing without a trace amounted to real concern and dreamlike foreboding. To an adult audience, Rock ‘n’ Rhyme is clearly made for kids. The writing isn’t very compelling and there are some severe pacing issues. What it does have are adult undertones that would’ve gone over kids heads, terrific 90s aesthetics, and a high-profile cast that few children could appreciate. Check out this scene with Cyndi Lauper as Mary (Had a Little Lamb) and Woody Harrelson as the Little Lamb, turned full-grown sheep, Lou:

“I lost two wonderful husbands all because of Lou’s insistence on following me
everywhere…. if you know what I mean.”

What’s particularly strange about this all-star musical line-up is that there are only a few songs in Rock ‘n’ Rhyme, and of these big names, only Little Richard and the Stray Cats actually perform. The real stars of the show are Shelley Duvall and Dan Gilroy as Little Bo Peep and Gordon Goose. Shelley Duvall you may know – as actress she gets around, but she’s perhaps best known for creating, producing, and staring in her own live action television show of children’s stories, Faerie Tale Theatre and its several successful spin-offs. Though Duvall didn’t produce Rock ‘n’ Rhyme, it’s no wonder that some versions of the film bear her good name in front of the title. (What’s more, it was written by two of her show’s frequent writers, Mark Curtiss and Rod Ash.) Dan Gilroy is more of an enigma, until I realized who he was. Gilroy was the lead singer of a band called Breakfast Club – no relation to the film. Breakfast Club deserve an article all to themselves, but in short: they formed in the late 70s, briefly featured Madonna (who Gilroy Dated) as a drummer and sometimes singer, released one album, and their 1987 single “Right On Track” is one of the greatest forgotten hits of the 80s. The video for “Right On Track” is a likewise forgotten, but no less outstanding gem – if Pee-Wee’s Playhouse had a house band with more energy and antics than the Puppetland Band, this would be it. The video looks like it was shot in Pee-Wee’s very own digs and the band are like cartoons- wait… this sounds familiar. Yes, it turns out that man who directed most of Breakfast Club’s videos is none other than the director of Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme, Jeff Stein.

The connections go even further and unlock just how this strange film came into being. Jeff Stein isn’t just some guy who made some videos for a band you’ve never heard of, he’s a prolific video director. The first film of his career was the groundbreaking 1979 rockumentary The Kids Are Alright, placing Stein on the music video radar right as the genre was inventing itself. All through the 1980s he directed videos for everyone from The Cars, to Debbie Harry, to every single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ album Southern Accents… including the ultra-famous video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”. Of course the surreal video of Tom Petty as the Mad Hatter is by the same guy as Rock ‘n’ Rhyme – it all makes perfect sense. In fact, the giant black and white checkered room in the music video is almost identical to the court of Old King Cole in Rock ‘n’ Rhyme.

Stein and Duvall’s joined forces are the best explanation for the tour de force star power behind Rock ‘n’ Rhyme, as to what warranted a huge musical cast with little to no musical output from most of them, that’s a secret I haven’t been able to uncover. Excess aside, the absurdity of the cast makes for a fun viewing. Veteran actress, Jean Stapleton plays the kindly old Mother Goose who spends her days writing into existence the wacky denizens of Rhymeland. Every morning that Gordon leaves the house he’s assaulted by the Rhymies’ absurdity, as seen in the opening song, “Hop To It”, performed by a cast of characters including the nearly 70 year-old musical trio, the Del Rubio Triplets. The bouncy tune of “Hop To It” suggests that it was written by Gilroy and perhaps some of the other then-disbanded Breakfast Club, but information is sparse.

Gordon is an awkward main character. Kids can easily relate to all the strange and carefree characters of Rhymeland, especially the quirky Bo Peep, but Gordon is cynical, sarcastic, and downright rude. A terrific example of this is when, in mistaking the voice of Itsy Bitsy Spider for Bo Peep, Gordon turns to her and says, “you know, you have the stupidest little voice” – ouch. What does make Gordon relative to kids is that he’s lost his mother, a profound childhood fear that everyone shares. I recall from my original memories of Rock ‘n’ Rhyme that the tension of Mother Goose’s disappearance was made even more foreboding by the interrupted message of Itsy Bitsy (played by famed actor and dancer Ben Vereen, best known to kids as Mayor Ben in Zoobilee Zoo). He mentions that something big came out of the sky, but the rain washes him down the waterspout before he can finish his message. Actually, he doesn’t finish his message because he has some kind of Attention-Deficit Disorder and can’t stay on one topic. As a kid I didn’t pick up on that.

Bo Peep and Gordon set out on a road trip through Rhymeland to search for clues. Herein is the heart of Rock ‘n’ Rhyme, exploring a Nursery Rhyme universe where all the characters are played by famous people and they’re all a bit dysfunctional. The mysterious Three Men in a Tub who confounded me as a youngster, were ZZ Top. They point Gordon and Bo Peep in the right directiThe Immortal Garry Shandlingon even though Gordon insults them (“they look like dropouts from barber college if you ask me”). Harry Anderson is the alliteration articulating Peter Piper, Howie Mandel plays the egghead Humpty Dumpty, Pia Zadora is the pint-sized, hospitality obsessed Little Miss Muffet, and Garry Shandling and Teri Garr are the “modern Rhymie-something kinda couple” Jack and Jill, who talk every problem to death: “Jill, I respect your need for needs, but I too have needs.” A scene featuring Married With Children‘s Katey Sagal as Mary Quite Contrary was inexplicably removed from the Rock ‘n’ Rhyme VHS release, while the Rock and Rhymeland version (seen on TV) kept the scene with a few other differences elsewhere in the film.

As “that grand old man of rock ‘n’ roll, that merry old soul, Old King Cole”, Little Richard is the first musician to perform his own music in the film. He serenades his rowdy court of rappers and his Minister of Merriment (a bit part inexplicably played by Van Dyke Parks) with a some old time rock ‘n’ roll. “Come on and give me some pie,” he wails as a giant pie is rolled into the court, out of which pops three female singers in crow outfits. Gordon makes the mistake of using the word “serious” in front of the king and is sent to the dungeon, “where we will drill the meaning of merriment into you until you scream with laughter.”

The dungeon scene is one of the most memorable of the entire film. Gordon is chained up and accosted by a grotesque, masked hair band who perform a song about what a tool he is. The band is an interesting point of discussion for fans of the film. They’re credited as “The Dank” and over the years have been attributed as everyone from KISS to Twisted Sister. In actuality they’re an assemblage of former Breakfast Club members Eddie Gilroy, Steve Bray, and the future American Idol judge, Randy Jackson with additional members Dweezil Zappa and Warren DeMartini, the lead guitarist of Ratt. What’s confusing about that lineup is that there’s one too many guitarists (there are only two in the scene) yet all those individuals are credited. So among these masked men it’s hard to say who was and wasn’t a part of The Dank. Regardless of the specifics, the song is catchy, fun, and features that creepy chant from The Wizard of Oz in the backing vocals:

As night falls on Rhymeland even more people are disappearing. Gordon and Bo Peep turn to shadier sources for clues, that being Georgie Porgie’s, a dingy night club where the Stray Cats (wearing feline prosthetics) are the house band. Art Garfunkle plays Georgie Porgie, the nearly silent bar tender. If he wasn’t credited as the part I wouldn’t have known it was him. It might be that he was just in the film so that both he and Simon could be credited in the film together. Simon appears later on as Simple Simon, a hitchhiker with no short term memory (and a crazy jump suit with peace signs and ankhs). Simon sings a rendition of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” briefly (“on the road again, can’t remember why I’m on the road again”) before Gordon snaps at him. There’s a couple of subtle Simon and Garfunkle jokes thrown in, such as that Simple Simon’s rhyme that he met a pieman going to the fair (as in Scarborough) and later Gordon chidingly calls him “bright eyes” (as in the Art Garfunkle song).

In between Simon and Garfunkle’s scenes is an odd aside in which Gordon meets the Three Blind Mice, all played by Bobby Brown. They run a detective agency and make some noir detective jokes, as well as blind people jokes, and then an inexplicable dance scene happens. What’s odd about Bobby Brown playing all three of the mice is that someone had to play the other two and the whole routine is very reminiscent of his New Edition days, but as best as anyone can tell no one from his former group joined him for the scene:

Worst child acting EVERGordon and Bo Peep steal the Cow that Jumps Over the Moon from Cheech Marin (The Cat and the Fiddle) and tear a hole though their reality into *gasp* the real world. There they find that a young boy has abducted Mother Goose, and encounter some of the worst child acting on record. Gordon easily convinces the child to let them return home by flatly telling him that he is destroying everything that Mother Goose created. They return safely, Gordon accepts that he too is fictional, changes his boring clothes for fancier duds including Gilroy’s distinctive pork pie hat, and begins a strange romance with Bo Peep.

Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme is one of those rare experiences in children’s programming that is so weird and unique, that despite its many dated qualities and failings, it withstands the test of time where it counts. It’s certainly better than most young children’s shows these days, excepting the awesomeness that is Yo Gabba Gabba. Most people who grew up watching it understandably want to show it to their kids. Unfortunately, neither version of the film has been available since the initial VHS release. Bootlegs featuring both versions are frequently available online, but the easiest way to experience Mother Goose Rock ‘n’ Rhyme is good ol’ YouTube, where the whole thing has been archived.

Audio Archaeology is a presentation of Media Potluck and Consequence of Sound.


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