Lambada vs. The Forbidden Dance: The bizarre Hollywood rivalry that spawned 2 legendary flops
A quick skim through film history will highlight plenty of times when suspiciously similar films were released within weeks of each other. Armageddon and Deep Impact. Dante's Peak and Volcano. Antz and A Bug's Life. But in all of Hollywood history, only once have two competing films with the same subject matter been put into wide release on the exact same day.
The subject of those films: the lambada.
It was 25 years ago today that the short-lived American craze for the sexy Brazilian dance reached its apex — and as it turned out, its nadir — when Lambada and The Forbidden Dance hit theaters, splitting the vote of any theoretical moviegoers/lambada enthusiasts. That market turned out to be rather small; both films tanked, ultimately grossing a combined total of just $6 million.
Even in an industry famous for illogical decisions, the choice to release two lambada-themed movies on the same day stands out as spectacularly self-destructive. What insanity sparked such an obvious, preordained failure?
Spite, of course — in Hollywood, the only emotion more powerful than greed.
The main characters in this strange behind-the-scenes story are Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israeli cousins who came to Hollywood in 1979 and turned the floundering mini-studio Cannon Films into a prolific factory of cheap but profitable — and occasionally even entertaining — schlock. With Golan's showmanship and artistic ambitions and Globus' business acumen, Cannon Films cranked out roughly 125 movies in the 1980s: Chuck Norris action flicks, Death Wish sequels, a bunch of films with "Ninja" in the title, Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, and the Sylvester Stallone vehicles Over the Top and Cobra. Golan and Globus were fast to pounce on hot trends and flashy concepts — anything that could be turned around quickly and inexpensively.
By all accounts, the producers were not mere hucksters, but genuine cinephiles who loved their work. It's just that they weren't very good at it. They bought bad, cheap screenplays, hired directors of dubious talent, and generally got what they paid for. (A new documentary, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, explores their tale in further detail.) But as the decade progressed, G&G's ambitions and budget expenditures got larger, leading to expensive disasters like 1987's twin misfires: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Masters of the Universe.
In 1989, Cannon faced bankruptcy and federal scrutiny of its financial records. Placing the blame for these problems squarely on Globus, Golan left Cannon to start his own company, 21st Century Film Corporation. Globus stayed at Cannon, which was taken over by Pathé Communications. The cousins didn't speak to each other for three years.
And then came the lambada. By mid-1989, the sultry, hip-oriented dance had spread from Brazil to the entire world, with the accompanying song — "Lambada," by the French pop group Kaoma — a chart-topper in several countries. (It eventually peaked at #46 on the U.S. Billboard chart, and sold 5 million copies worldwide.)
For a brief moment, the lambada was a legitimate phenomenon, not a manufactured one, and entrepreneurial-minded people sought to take advantage of it.
It was, in other words, right up Cannon Films' alley. Globus, still at the company, rushed a film called Lambada into production. At 21st Century Film Corporation, Golan went to work on his own lambada cash-in, eventually titled The Forbidden Dance. There was no mistaking these overlapping plans for a coincidence. When Globus announced a May 4 release date for his film, Golan said his would be out on April 6. Globus successfully petitioned the MPAA to refuse Golan the right to use the word "lambada" in his title, turning Lambada: The Forbidden Dance into The Forbidden Dance. Golan beat Globus on another count by getting exclusive rights to Kaoma's "Lambada" song. Yes, you read that right: The movie Lambada does not feature the song "Lambada."
The feud only escalated from there. On March 8, Golan took out a two-page ad in Variety to announce that The Forbidden Dance would open on March 16. "I am proud and honored to have had the opportunity to create the one and only original Lambada film that truly depicts the lambada dance," he said, openly taunting his cousin. Globus responded the only way he could: by announcing that Lambada would also be in theaters March 16 — even though it had only finished shooting on March 5.
Eleven days. Rarely, if ever, has there been a narrower gap between a Hollywood film's last day of shooting and its first public exhibition. Within the context of the feud, Globus' insane gambit worked: Lambada made it to theaters on time and earned $2.9 million on its first weekend — well over The Forbidden Dance, which took $721,000 and 13th place. But by any rational, non-revenge-based measure, both were still failures.
Does it even matter which of the lambada films was better? It's unlikely that either Globus (who's still producing films back in Israel) or Golan (who died in August 2014) would concede that point to the other. For the record, here's my opinion: Both films are laughably bad, full of half-witted dialogue, illogical stories, and amateurish acting. Lambada, seemingly influenced by both Dirty Dancing and one of those generically inspiring high school movies, is about a handsome high school math teacher who dances the lambada and tutors inner-city kids at night. The Forbidden Dance has much more dancing — and, of course, the official "Lambada" song — but its plot is a goofy "save the Amazon" thing about a sexy Brazilian woman who comes to Los Angeles to stop an oil company from destroying her homeland. It ends with a title card reading, "This film is dedicated to the preservation of the rain forest" — a ludicrously unconvincing argument for its own deeper meaning.
In all probability, neither lambada film would have made any money — even if either had been the only lambada film released. That's the tricky thing about fads; they tend to be over by the time you can get a movie made, even when you rush out a B-grade project. The lambada movie was a losing battle from the start; the behind-the-scenes stubbornness of the films' colorful producers only assured their mutual destruction.
Did Hollywood learn any lessons from the episode? Maybe. No one since has been spiteful or pigheaded enough to release two identically themed movies on the same day. And six years later, when America was overtaken by another dance craze, not a single "Macarena"-themed movie came out. That's progress.