‘American Idol’ Executive Producer’s Secret Flop: ‘The Apple’

Cult-classic film is considered one of the worst musicals of all time.

We all have a ghost from our past we wish we could avoid, a skeleton in our closet or a trauma we don’t wish to relive. “American Idol” executive producer Nigel Lythgoe is no exception.

“I’m not going to talk about ’The Apple,’ ” he said, perched behind his desk.

The apparent sore subject is Lythgoe’s sole cinematic choreography credit (mysteriously absent from his Internet Movie Database filmography). It also happens to be considered one of the worst films of its era.

The year was 1980. MTV didn’t exist, John Lennon was still alive and at the movies, it was the year of the disco-rock musical. Granted, by then disco was on its last bell-bottomed leg, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from unleashing three films with a boogie beat. “Can’t Stop the Music” featured Steve Guttenberg in short shorts and the Village People, and “Xanadu” shoved cinema legend Gene Kelly into a pair of roller skates, but many critics agree that “The Apple” takes the cake when it comes to pure schlocky incoherence.

The sci-fi allegory — which essentially boils down to a music competition not unlike “American Idol” (except that it involves God and the devil) — confounded audiences when it hit theaters in November 1980. The remaining disco fans resented its inherently anti-disco message (it was, after all, the devil’s music), but rock fans weren’t willing to sit through a movie that claimed to be knocking disco when its soundtrack was wall-to-wall disco music! Adding insult to injury, the film took place in the future — 1994 — and the idea that disco music would still be popular 14 years later seemed especially outrageous, considering the genre was barely thriving by the end of ’80.

Legend has it that during its opening night, souvenir records of the soundtrack were given out to patrons as they entered the movie theater. Once the film started, viewers were so appalled by what they saw that they threw their records at the movie screen, causing extensive damage. Eventually theater owners grew savvy, not handing out the soundtracks until after the screenings, but once the end credits rolled there were no takers. (And allegedly, the ones that did take a free post-movie souvenir did so only to throw it into oncoming traffic!)

But returning to 2008, Lythgoe’s tone suddenly flipped. Without warning, the man who had just sniffed that he would not talk about his past credit cracked a smile and grew wistful in the blink of an eye.

“I love ’The Apple,’ ” he cooed. “Listen, to be asked to choreograph a movie back in those days? It was 1979! I was delighted to do it.”

Years after “The Apple” destroyed movie screens nationwide, the flop finally landed on home-video shelves. Unfortunately, the film’s videotape transfer was less than stellar. Instead of a proper “pan and scan” format, the sides of the film image were simply chopped off haphazardly, resulting in several scenes where viewers would hear actors talking but couldn’t actually see them. Yet despite this gaffe — or perhaps because of it — film fanatics re-discovered the box-office disaster, and the cult of “The Apple” was born.

Fans organized midnight screenings. Sci-fi conventions followed suit and held their own showings. Eventually the movie became a staple at film festivals and art-house theaters, “Rocky Horror”-style — complete with costume contests and sing-alongs, leading MGM Home Video to finally release “The Apple” on DVD in 2004. Soon the same people who had destroyed their free souvenir records decades earlier were paying upwards of $50 for a fresh copy on eBay.

Even Lythgoe recently joined in on the fun. “I took everybody here [at ’American Idol’] to see ’The Apple’ in a theater down the street, and it was classed as one of the two worst musicals of all time. ’The Apple’ and ’Xanadu’ played as a double feature.”

The choreographer was now beaming. “And I’ve got to be honest with you,” he proudly proclaimed, ” ’The Apple’ was twice as bad as ’Xanadu.’ ”

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