Hit records, attempted murder and ninja turtles — VHS Revival waxes lyrical about the corporate prototype who wowed a generation
In many ways, Robert ‘Vanilla Ice’ Van Winkle was the Eminem of his generation. Sure, he came with less street cred — mostly because he lacked the backing of someone like Dr. Dre, a creative and commercial juggernaut with cultural credibility in abundance — but he established a white presence in a dominantly black sub-culture and rose to pop chart prominence almost overnight. Unlike Eminem, Vanilla would fade away just as quickly. This, after Death Row kingpin Marion ‘Suge’ Knight threatened his life on the fifteenth floor balcony of a Beverly Hills hotel, making him sign over the rights to international smash hit Ice Ice Baby, a move thought to have cost the star somewhere in the region of four-million dollars. Knight is currently serving a 28-year prison sentence following a hit-and-run incident in 2015, and society is a better place for it, but he wouldn’t be the only person to take offence to Vanilla’s antics. The baggy-trousered pop star would later become a target for ridicule the world over, most famously as one of late comedian Bill Hicks’ ‘spiritless little corporate fucking puppets, suckers of Satan’s cock’. And, as always, Hicks had a point.
To be fair, Ice Ice Baby is an irresistible pop record — partly because it samples the classic Queen riff from Under Pressure and partly because many of us were just the right age to fall for the corporate marketing campaign he ultimately embraced. Contrary to popular belief, the track was initially picked up by independent label Ichiban Records, appearing as a B-side on Van Winkle’s cover of Play That Funky Music. It also features some of the most charmingly ridiculous lyrics ever committed to vinyl, words that were penned by Van Winkle himself based on his time growing up in South Florida. According to his rhymes, it was there that he learned how to cook MCs like a pound of bacon, rollin’ in his 5.0 with his ragtop down so his hair could blow, though it’s worth noting that he was barely 16 at the time and probably couldn’t see over the steering wheel. To be fair, Vanilla isn’t the worst rapper you’ll ever hear. What he lacked was the authenticity to be taken seriously, and when media giants EMI got their cash-grabbing claws into him, the fate of the first hip-hop act to cross over into the mainstream pop market was sealed.
By 1991, Vanilla was cropping up everywhere: in teenie magazines, on kids TV shows — he even had his own set of Vanilla Ice dolls manufactured by American video game developer THQ. When he inevitably hooked up with the equally red-hot Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for creatively barren movie sequel The Secret of the Ooze, whatever street cred the ‘ice man’ had melted into a puddle of store-bought ice cream, and not the good kind. For all the corporate shenanigans that the poor kid had to endure, the biggest nail came in the form of David Kellogg’s Universal Pictures-produced Cool As Ice — the lousiest, most absurd example of teen-oriented marketing to ever enter theatres (at least back then). Not satisfied with a multi-platinum selling single, the Universal vultures would ship their million-dollar treacle machine directly to Hollywood, plaguing us with what is essentially a remake of Marlon Brando’s 1953 Drama The Wild One — if you were to blend the style of that film with the colourfully shallow MTV dance videos of the early ’90s — but let me make one thing clear: Vanilla is no Brando, and the pop star’s ‘rebel’ is most certainly without a cause.
Hey, Kat! Words of wisdom: drop that zero and get with the hero!Johnny
In many ways, it was a case of bad timing. The early ’90s gave birth to an explosion of anti-establishment music across the board. Nirvana would take underground punk-rock sub-genre ‘grunge’ mainstream with unmitigated smash Nevermind less than a month prior to the release of Cool As Ice, and the fact that Ice Ice Baby became the first rap single to top the US charts didn’t go down too well with West Coast rappers more concerned with police violence and inner-city abandonment than they were with transnational conglomerate servitude. This was rap’s golden age, a chance for artists like Public Enemy and N.W.A to vent their racial frustrations on a global level, and they were suddenly being ousted by a cute commercial package garbed in white meat Americana. It was a far cry from the days of Run DMC, who with the savvy fusion of rock and rap reached a mainstream white audience in the right way, giving underappreciated and misunderstood black artists an MTV platform at the turn of the 80s. Vanilla’s debut album, To the Extreme, would fly a much flimsier mainstream flag through fall and winter of 1990, spending an incredible 16 weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 and selling over seven million copies in the US alone. Perhaps Mr. Knight had a point after all.
To put Van Winkle’s incredible decline into perspective, less than a year later, Cool As Ice would flop catastrophically at the box office, recouping less than a quarter of its estimated $6,000,000 budget and languishing in fourteenth among the week’s new releases. It was even ousted by the likes of Ernest Scared Stupid, an equally infantile endeavour which gullible kids presumably deemed more authentic. Before I get into the thick of it, let me give you an example of the kind of misguided trash we’re dealing with here. Since the all-out wackiness never lets up, I may as well start at the beginning with the infamous motorcycle jump, a gobsmackingly ill-judged introduction to the film’s flimsy love interest that makes James Dean’s Jim Stark seem like a practical, well-adjusted young man. For those who have endured this travesty of a movie — and I’m sure there are plenty of you out there— you’ll know exactly the moment I’m referring to, one that made an absolute fool out of actress Kristin Miller, who must rue the day she ever signed-up for this absolute career-killer. Unsurprisingly, her mainstream run would falter hopelessly following the critical and commercial bomb that was Cool As Ice. The actress must thank the heavens for her 71-episode stint in Michael Crichton’s game-changing hospital drama ER.
Let me set the scene: a beautiful, middle class suburbanite and champion show jumper is grazing the fields on horseback. It’s a gorgeous day. Birds are singing, daisies dance deliriously beneath a stallion’s delicate hooves. The sun, beaming ever so brightly, nourishes the life below, and make no mistake about it, Minter’s Kathy is a stunning specimen, the kind of high-class lady who wouldn’t look twice at a douchebag like Vanilla — at least in theory. Enter ‘da man’ in question, trailed by a biker gang of black underlings who keep a respectful distance from their great white hope. Pursuing with suggestive eyebrows and a self-satisfied grin that remains fixed throughout, our protagonist spots our babe in the woods and decides to introduce his irresistible self by revving up his superbike and leaping death-defyingly in front of her, causing her pony to bolt and throw her from the saddle. Imagine telling your grandkids that one! Despite almost making her a paraplegic, Vanilla’s Johnny is shocked when Kathy reacts by punching him in the chest. “Damn! What the hell’s wrong with you?!,” he smugly and affectionately asks, and thus the tone for one of cinema’s biggest corporate atrocities is set.
Surprisingly (and I don’t say that lightly), it isn’t long before Minter’s newly christened ‘Kat’ is head-over-heels for her attempted murderer, who as fortune would have it soon breaks down in her neighbourhood. Less fortunate is our introduction to the movie’s comic relief, and not the accidental kind, which Cool As Ice also has in abundance. I don’t know how they managed to squeeze in a character as risible as Johnny, but 21 Jump Street writer David Stenn did just that — not once, not twice, but thrice! His first two character crimes come in the form of an excruciating middle-aged couple named Mae and Roscoe, a puerile pair who own and operate a local garage that’s the movie’s answer to Peewee’s Playhouse. By the time they’ve contrived to dismantle the bike they were tasked with fixing — a wacky plot device designed to paint the gang as family-friendly — you’re kind of wishing Vanilla’s homies had brought their Uzi 9mms along for the ride. Vanilla’s character may be laughably hackneyed, but at least the guy has a preposterous charm. These putrid creations need obliterating off the face of the Earth, and that’s me being kind. Thanks to Mae and Roscoe’s painfully humourless oversight, the gang have no choice but to stick around and practice their dance moves, taking part in a series of dazzlingly empty scenes which drag interminably while Vanilla sits around stroking his chin, offering cardboard introspection to anyone dumb enough to buy into it.
Astonishingly, his A+ student is reckless endangerment victim, Kathy, a daughter of witness protection who just needs to learn how to loosen up a little, and boy is she in luck! The only thing standing in Vanilla’s way is the newly christened Kat’s preppy boyfriend, Nick, a buttoned-down douchebag with an amiable façade who immediately offers the movie’s resident bad boy the kind of casual scorn he so richly deserves. When our fraudulent rapper ‘accidentally’ runs into the couple at a local dance hall, Vanilla and his gang clear the stage and show the repressed townsfolk what it means to truly live with a little body popping. Of course, they’re immediately won over by the outsider’s streetwise bravado and two-bit mic skills — not least fellow talent Kathy, who instantly swoons and softens into the proverbial putty. Nick is somewhat aggrieved when his girl then begins grinding with the faux-macho dipshit who rode so recklessly into town, bamboozled when she rejects his offer of forgiveness in favour of an MTV-style montage that threatens to oust him for good. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish exactly who is the bad guy is.
I don’t know what veteran writer Stenn was thinking, or whether he just didn’t give a shit, but the characters are so unlikable. Sure, Nick is a conniving worm who sets a gang of preppies on our tough guy protagonist (dumb move!), but Kathy is a fickle, heartless bitch who deserves everything she gets, the film’s snow white princess actually coming across as the real heel in the equation. Then there’s her wetbag of a younger brother, Tommy, the third character to top Vanilla for sheer risibility, who asides from being the focal point of an absurdly erratic, fast-motion domestic montage that serves absolutely no point whatsoever, acts as the ‘woah!’ and ‘awesome!’ plot device who attempts to convince us that Johnny isn’t the bouffant-sporting, clown pants wearing schmuck we see onscreen, but a risqué cultural phenomenon and role model for kids the world over. In reality, that bubble had already burst, but Universal were hellbent on milking Vanilla for every last cent. I’m just glad they ended up footing the bill.
[wooing Kat on their first date] It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at anyway. And right now, I’m here with you.Johnny
There’s a sub-narrative here, but only because there has to be. Kathy’s disapproving pops, played by Michael Gross of Family Ties fame, is on the run from the kind of bumbling mafioso who make Baby’s Day Out look like Goodfellas at its most bloodthirsty — another excuse to prove our streetwise rebel’s credentials. When little Tommy is inevitably kidnapped, daddy recants his presuppositions and turns to our backwards cap-wearing super sleuth, whose Murder She Wrote contrivance leads us to the same construction site where he and Kat shared their first date. This is lazy, money-grabbing trash of the highest order, but as a monument to just how low filmmaking can sink in the shark-ridden, think tanks of mainstream Hollywood, this really is a must see. I guarantee it will raise more than the odd giggle, or at the very least leave you scoffing at the impudence.
The movie didn’t help a situation that had already turned sour for the young star. The media love to build you up and knock you down, Vanilla becoming the target of a nationwide smear campaign. Black rappers of course questioned his credibility, Arsenio Hall famously challenging him in a savage attack on national television following claims about his autobiography, which seemed to embellish or flat-out deceive in regards to his background. Vanilla, who spoke earnestly and came across as likeable, managed to hold his own for the most part, but it was a pure assassination job. Van Winkle had been allowed his moment and it was time for a receipt. When the lights go out, stardom can be a lonely place indeed.
With Vanilla’s credibility already halfway in the toilet, Cool As Ice proved the death knell for Van Winkle as a mainstream draw, the film bombing on just about every conceivable level. Not only did it lose money at the box office, sales for the accompanying album also flopped dramatically, his repertoire growing stale and corny seemingly overnight. His single-digit fans, now approaching their teens, ditched the funky pants and moved on to brighter cultural pastures. There was no coming back either. Overnight success of such monumental proportions, micromanaged to such a degree, is never more than tenuous puffery, the borrowed rap star patois and sham attitude nothing more than an illusion. And if the idea was to transition Van Winkle into a movie star, the infamous Golden Raspberry Awards would all but seal his fate in that regard. Cool As Ice was nominated for a devastating seven Razzies in total, Vanilla even bagging the Worst New Star gong. He was not in attendance to accept it.
Mr Van Winkle would become the subject of widespread ridicule in the ensuing years, which is a little unfair. Though he willingly put himself through the commercial grinder for a fast food career of grease-smeared proportions, it’s hard to dislike the guy on any serious level. A hit record, whatever its consequences, is still a hit record. Wherever you are in the world you’ll still hear Ice Ice Baby blaring from the radio, and dollars to doughnuts you’ll be singing right along to it. Sure, it lacks credibility, but people generally look back on the record fondly, whatever their reasons for doing so, and that in itself is something to be proud of. Even for those who despise the record, there’s no denying Van Winkle’s place in late 20th century pop culture. Nowadays, dozens upon dozens of acts come straight off the conveyor belt in a regimented industry that takes all the power out of the hands of the artist. Vanilla may have had his wealth extorted, but at least he penned his own song. When his chance to shine presented itself, he saw that chance and took it.
The real villains here are faceless. They hide behind shiny posters and crappy merchandise, behind lousy sentiments and multimillion-dollar cash-grabs. Vanilla was just the latest in an endless stream of gullible kids who are offered the world only to have it ruthlessly taken away from them. On July 4, 1994, Van Winkle survived a heroin overdose-come-suicide attempt long after the vultures had fled, which proved a significant turning point in his life. “It’s always polished-looking from the outside in,” the former star would say of his career. “Until you walk the shoes you can only imagine. And all you have to imagine on is what the media has portrayed… what it is like to be a celebrity, and they polish it all up. You see the red carpets. The paparazzi’s taking pictures. Getting out of limousines. They see women. They see money. They see everybody admiring him and everything. But they don’t see the real life of living it. You know what I’m saying? And living it is a lot of work, a lot of stress, a lot of therapy. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on therapy. It gets to you, man, people pulling at you left and right. You’re a product instead of a human, and you’ve gotta learn to adapt to the whole thing. And it’s not easy, man. It’s not easy.”
In later years, Vanilla would jump on the nostalgia bandwagon, turning to grunge and later the reality TV circuit — a microcosm of his contradictory mainstream persona. After everything he endured for the sake of corporate tyranny, who could blame him for sticking to what he knows? I say fair play to the man and wish him all the luck for the future. If the media is willing to milk you so ruthlessly, drive a milk truck in front of that stallion and see what falls out of the saddle. It worked with pretty, show jumping suburbanites.
Word to your mother!