There are two nightclubs in the British town of Sludgely, but they are situated right next door to one another, much to each of the owners' chagrin seeing as how they do everything they can to put the other out of business. This has led both owners, ex-music hall star Max Nugget (Terry-Thomas) and modern-thinking upstart Gary (Billy Boyle), to court where the official in charge of their licences (Frank Thornton) has ordered them before a judge to decide on their fate in light of their anti-social behaviour. The judge then tells them only one nightclub will survive, which brings them to desperate measures...
By the time Side by Side happened along, the British pop and rock movie was in a sorry state, not that it had ever been the origins of many all time classics, but from the country which brought you A Hard Day's Night which had encouraged many imitators, some good, some not so much, not to mention the efforts that were released before that high watermark, during the seventies it seemed the good times were over. About the highest profile works were David Essex's That'll Be The Day and Stardust, though Ken Russell was doing his best with the form, and compared to Side by Side those were downright masterpieces as the makers of his woebegone cheapie illustrated nothing but their lack of imagination.
This was out around the same time as another glam-influenced picture, Never Too Young to Rock, but if anything this was even worse, mixing uninspiring acts from the current charts with humour that was a mixture of working men's clubs material and tired slapstick - they even restaged the wallpapering skit beloved of endless episodes of kids' TV show Crackerjack, the joke there being how messy things would get which was appropriate enough here considering the slapdash nature of the enterprise. Yet there was a meanspirited air which kept threatening to break through: just listen to Nugget's insults fired off at Gary where he calls him a "child molester", "poofter" and "mentally retarded".
Not exactly hilarious, even for insult comedy, but then there was a seedy nature to Side by Side working against any fun which you might have had. The reason Barry Humphries was in the cast, here as Nugget's nephew, was the same reason director Bruce Beresford was there: they had both been instrumental in the success of the Australian Barry McKenzie comedies, so evidently the producers hoped lightning would strike a third time, but no matter what you thought of the broad, crude sense of humour of those they were at least funny in places, which is more than could be said of the depressingly basic goings-on here. That said, for a glimpse of a decade it was true that looking at the most downmarket entertainment could be more revealing than the acknowledged classics.
This was as much an extended promotion for the musical acts as it was a comedy, so every so often the action would grind to a halt whereupon The Rubettes, Kenny or Fox could appear and regale us with either a tune which had been a hit, or one they hoped would be but never was. Even co-star Stephanie De Sykes, here playing the love interest, got to trill her hit Born with a Smile on My Face while in a recording booth for no good reason other than she was available and might as well do what she was best known for. Elsewhere, Terry-Thomas, who did not look a happy bunny at all, did birdsong impressions, Humphries appeared in minstrel blackface, and there was a chase sequence between a motorbike and a bubble car which ended with the latter getting wrecked. On the bright side, Desmond Dekker turned up to give The Israelites another airing, but musical moments of that quality were few and far between. Nevertheless, Side by Side was more redolent of Britain in the seventies than many would care to admit.