Hidden Gem: ‘Taking Off’

The film that acted as a bridge between Forman’s low-budget Czech pictures and his multiple Oscar winners.

After the release of films like Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and Easy Rider in 1969, the major American studios became aware that there was a demand for pictures made by young film-makers influenced by Eastern-European directors. Universal Pictures set up a ‘youth division’ to help cater for this market and put an executive named Ned Tanen in charge. Tanen would go on to finance such classics as Two-Lane Blacktop, Silent Running and American Graffiti.

Elsewhere in 1967, Miloš Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball was released in his home country of Czechoslovakia where the head of state soon interpreted the farce as a political allegory. It didn’t help that the country was going through a period of political upheaval with the events of the Prague Spring, and Forman soon found his film banned. He moved to America and began looking for a financer for his next picture.

These two events merged and Forman became one of the first directors to be given money from Tanen’s unit. What better way to create a film influenced by Eastern-European directors than to have one of them make one for you! The result is 1971’s Taking Off, a film that acts as a bridge between Forman’s low-budget Czech pictures (Black Peter, Love’s of a Blonde, and the aforementioned Fireman’s Ball) and his multiple Oscar winners (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus).

Taking Off is a comedy about a young girl who runs away from home but instead of following her adventures, we focus on the parents looking for her. Lynn Carlin and Buck Henry star as Lynn and Larry Tyne, very upper-middle class people trying to make sense of their daughter, Jeannie’s disappearance. They soon discover that in the tumultuous and confusing time that is the late 60s / early 70s, children running away from home are a rather common occurrence and they meet up with many others hunting for their offspring.

Of course in order to find your teenager, you need to think like your teenager, you need to act like your teenager. The parents engage in elements of the counter-culture to help better understand why their child might leave in the first place. This includes attending a tutorial on how to smoke marijuana led by character-actor (and Forman regular) Vincent Schiavelli in his first film role. Schiavelli hands out joints to the parents then gives step-by-step instructions as to how to use them (“take the joint with the open end facing you firmly between your thumb and index fingers…”). Watching him become more and more amused as the elders become more and more stoned is a real highlight.

At a bar, the futility of Larry handing out pictures of his daughter is exemplified when he finds that they just get added to a sort of ‘missing children’ box. He flicks through the photos that are already in the box and notices that one of the girls is actually in the bar at that very moment. He tries to point it out to the bartender, but she doesn’t want to get involved so he rings the number on the back of the photo himself. Before the girl’s mother can get there, the girl starts to leave. Larry tries to intervene but ends up intimidated by her tall, muscled boyfriend and his hippy friends. It seems merely finding the runaway teen isn’t quite enough.

Intercut with the parent’s quest is footage of open-mic auditions for a record label which Jeannie is attending. These performances range from beautifully haunting to down-right terrifying. The auditions are jam-packed with teens trying to catch their big break, whether they have the talent for it or not is another matter. Amongst those auditioning are a pre-fame Carly Simon and a very young Kathy Bates (credited as Bobo Bates!) who sings one of the more touching songs. Cutting to the auditions and back keeps the energy of the film high and occasionally a song will flow from diegetic during the audition to non-diegetic during the scenes of the parent’s search quite effectively.

By the end of the film, Larry and Lynne are more open to the alternatives that exist outside what they would consider normal. They invite their daughter’s boyfriend (who, to be frank, looks like Charles Manson c. 1970) to dinner and listen to him talk about his music and his hopes to one day be able to afford an “intercontinental ballistic missile”. On the other hand, the final shot of their daughter as she watches her father sing suggests that although Jeannie’s parents better understand her, she may never understand her parents.

Taking Off is a rare treat that received great critical praise but had a poor commercial performance due to a mis-handled release. Forty years on, it’s not too late to track it down and give it the audience it deserves.