Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Eddie and the Cruisers

When Eddie and the Cruisers came out in 1983 it was either ignored or received negatively by critics and performed poorly at the box office. However, over the years it has quietly cultivated a small but dedicated cult following. The film is primarily a mystery – what happened to musician Eddie Wilson? – and it also an unabashed love letter to rock ‘n’ roll and the New Jersey shore in the 1960s. It has been over 25 years since the film was released and it is high time for a re-evaluation of this under-appreciated gem.

Maggie Foley (Ellen Barkin) is a journalist for Media magazine and is doing a retrospective piece on Eddie and the Cruisers, a New Jersey bar band that was a minor sensation in the 1960s with one hit record and the top song in country during the summer of 1963. The band were working on an ambitious follow-up when lead singer Eddie Wilson (Michael Pare) drove his car off a pier and met with a watery demise on March 15, 1964. Or did he? No body was found. Maggie’s hook is that maybe Eddie didn’t die. She draws a parallel between him and French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who like Eddie, pulled a disappearing act at the height of his popularity while striving for perfection in his art. Now, everyone is looking for the master tapes of A Season in Hell, the album that was to be Eddie’s magnum opus, and which also disappeared only a day after Eddie vanished.

Through a series of flashbacks from all of the surviving band members, we see the rise and fall of Eddie and the Cruisers. The film is told predominantly from the point-of-view of Frank “The Wordman” Ridgeway (Tom Berenger), the band’s piano player and lyricist. He teaches English in high school now but Maggie’s questions bring all the old memories flooding back. The first flashback takes us back to 1962, while President John F. Kennedy was still in the White House, and when the United States was still a relatively innocent and hopeful country. Eddie and the Cruisers meet Frank at a bar in the Jersey Shore. Sal Amato (Matthew Laurance), their bass player, has been writing their songs but they aren’t enough for Eddie who tells him, “it just ain’t what I was looking for.” Eddie spots Frank and asks him what he thinks. Frank impresses Eddie with his knowledge of writing when he points out that Sal’s song needs a caesura, “a timely pause, a kind of strategic silence.” This is pretty high-falootin’ stuff for a rock ‘n’ roll movie and an indicator that this film aspires to be something different.

Eddie dreams of creating music that endures and director Martin Davidson juxtaposes these almost wistful sentiments with Sal’s contemporary Cruisers revival that is pure Las Vegas cheese, bastardizing the music as a lame lounge act where he finally gets to front the band. He embodies the very thing that Eddie was against – prostituting yourself instead of remaining true to the music. Sal’s version of the Cruisers, complete with an Eddie wannabe, is like when you see Lynyrd Skynyrd with only one original member of the band left – a pale imitation of its former self.

Davidson has said that the inspiration for the film came from a desire to "get all my feelings about the music of the last 30 years of rock music into it.” He optioned P.F. Kluge’s novel of the same name with his own money and at great financial risk. He wrote the screenplay with Arlene Davidson and decided to use a Citizen Kane-style story structure. He said in an interview, “That was in my head: the search.” He made a deal with Time-Life, a company that was going into the moviemaking business. However, they quickly exited the business after making two films that were not financially successful and Davidson’s project was left high and dry. He was understandably upset and a couple days later he went out to dinner and ran into a secretary who worked on the first film he had made. Davidson told her what had happened to his film and she gave his script for Eddie and the Cruisers to her business partners. In a relatively short time a deal was struck with a company called Aurora and Davidson was given a $6 million budget. Aurora made only three films – The Secret of NIMH (1982), Heart Like a Wheel (1983), and his film.

In order to get a credible looking and sounding band for the film, Davidson hired Kenny Vance, one of the original members of Jay and the Americans. He showed Davidson his scrapbook, the places they performed, the car they drove in, and things like how they transported their instruments. Vance also told Davidson stories about his band, some of which he incorporated into the script. Vance asked Davidson to describe his fictious band and what their music sounded like. Initially, he said that the Cruisers’ sound resembled Dion and the Belmonts but when they meet Frank they had elements of Jim Morrison and The Doors. However, Davidson did not want to lose sight of the fact that the Cruisers were essentially a Jersey bar band and he thought of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Davidson told Vance to find him someone that could produce music that contained elements of those three bands. Davidson was getting close to rehearsals when Vance called him and told him that he had found the band – John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band from Providence, Rhode Island. Davidson met them and realized that they closely resembled the band as described in the script, right down to a black saxophone player, whom he actually cast in the film. Initially Cafferty was hired to write a few songs for the film but he did such a good job of capturing the feeling of the 1960s and the 1980s that Davidson asked him to score the film

Tom Berenger did not try to learn how to play the piano for the film but did practice keyboards for hours in his trailer to at least create the illusion that he could play. Matthew Laurance actually learned how to play the bass through rehearsals. Michael Pare said of his role in the film that it was "a thrill I've never experienced. It's a really weird high. For a few moments, you feel like a king, a god. It's scary, a dangerous feeling. If you take it too seriously." Davidson had the actors who played in Eddie's band rehearse as if they were getting ready for a real concert. Pare remembers, "The first time we played together – as a band – was a college concert. An odd thing happened. At first, the extras simply did what they were told. Then, as the music heated up, so did the audience. They weren't play-acting anymore. The screaming, stomping and applause became spontaneous.” Davidson recalls, "One by one, kids began standing up in their seats, screaming and raising their hands in rhythmic applause. A few girls made a dash for the stage, tearing at Michael's shirt. We certainly hadn't told them to do that. But we kept the cameras rolling.”

The filmmakers do a pretty good job recreating the period details on a modest budget at best. There’s the cool cars, the clothes, and so on, but more importantly there is a tangible atmosphere of simpler times and nostalgia. This is encapsulated in the straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll music of the Cruisers that sounds a lot like early Springsteen. There is also a little bit of period music, most notably Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” that is used to immediately transport you back to that time. As soon you hear that distinctive song it instantly invokes that period and there is no question where we are.

What Eddie and the Cruisers nails so well is the dynamic between the members in the band, like how Sal gets on Eddie’s nerves, or how a romance develops between Frank and Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider), the band’s back-up singer. Davidson’s film shows how the band members bicker among each other but come together when it counts – playing live, where they know how to energize an audience. The film presents several band archetypes – the charismatic lead singer, the junkie band mate, the arrogant one, the laid back one, and the thoughtful one – but without being too obvious about it. Joann is the Patti Scialfa to Eddie’s Bruce Springsteen but Frank falls for her the first time they meet in ’62. There are certainly sparks between them but as anyone who’s been in a band knows, the fastest way to break one up is getting romantically involved with a fellow bandmate.

One of the best scenes in the film that illustrates the band’s dynamic is the flashback showing how their biggest hit, “On the Dark Side,” evolved. Eddie takes Frank’s slow ballad and spruces it up with a catchy up-tempo keyboard melody. Pretty soon the rest of the band joins and a hit is born. This scene shows what a great team Eddie and Frank are – the former supplies the music and the latter supplies the words. It also shows Eddie’s uncanny ear for what works in a song.

Michael Pare really sells the music well and delivers just the right amount of energy and charisma. It helps that the vocals he’s lip-synching to fit him well. You almost believe that he’s really singing. Pare also portrays Eddie as tantalizingly elusive and enigmatic. You are never quite sure what he’s thinking and he’s a man of few words but clearly has ambitions above and beyond entertaining an audience. With the album A Season in Hell, Eddie wanted to create something different and when the powers that be tried to deny him, he disappeared. Along with Streets of Fire (1984), Eddie and the Cruisers was supposed to make Pare a big movie star but both films tanked commercially and critically. Now, he’s relegated mostly to direct-to-home-video fare.

Tom Berenger conveys a slightly sad, wistful vibe as Frank clearly misses the times he had with the band. He has made peace with his lot in life. He’s no longer a musician and his ambitions died alongside Eddie. I always liked Berenger and he’s wonderfully understated in this film. He would go on to the role of a lifetime in Platoon (1986), which was the antithesis to his role in Eddie and the Cruisers and showcased his versatility as an actor. Prior to this film, he also had a memorable turn in The Big Chill (1983). For awhile it looked like he would be leading man material but he has settled rather nicely into character actor roles.

A young Ellen Barkin plays the persistent reporter who tries to unravel the mystery of Eddie’s death. She looks so young and beautiful in this film but isn’t given too much screen time. Looking back, she had a pretty fantastic run in the 1980s with this film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984), The Big Easy (1987), and ended the decade in style with Sea of Love (1989). Unfortunately, she did not have a good experience making the film, remarking in an interview, "I think people were all fucked-up on drugs. I don't know. I was a little removed, because I wasn't on the movie the whole time, but it seemed like it was just a mess." Joe Pantoliano plays the Cruisers’ manager with the same kind of enthusiasm that he would display in other memorable roles in the 1980s, like Risky Business (1983), The Mean Season (1985), and Midnight Run (1988).

Eddie and the Cruisers was originally intended to open during the summer but a scheduling error resulted in a September release when its target audience – teenagers – were back in school. It was released on September 23, 1983 and grossed $1.4 million on its opening weekend. The film was pulled from theaters after three weeks and all of the ads were pulled after one week. It would go on to make a disappointing $4.7 million in North America.

Eddie and the Cruisers received largely mixed to negative reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and found the ending “so frustrating, so dumb, so unsatisfactory, that it gives a bad reputation to the whole movie.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Some of the details ring uncannily true, like the slick oldies nightclub act that one of the Cruisers is still doing nearly 20 years after Eddie's supposed death. Other aspects of the movie are inexplicably wrong. Eddie's music sounds good, but it also sounds a lot like Bruce Springsteen’s, and it would not have been the rage in 1963.” However, she did praise Pare's performance: "Mr. Pare makes a fine debut; he captures the manner of a hot-blooded young rocker with great conviction, and his lip-synching is almost perfect.” Gary Arnold, in the Washington Post, wrote, "At any rate, it seemed to me that what Eddie and the Cruisers aspired to do was certainly worth doing. The problem is that it finally lacks the storytelling resources to tell enough of an intriguing story about a musical mystery man.”

In 1984, Eddie and the Cruisers found new life on HBO. After the soundtrack album suddenly climbed the charts, the studio re-released it in the fall of 1984. During its play dates on HBO, the album sold three million copies. Nine months after the film opened, “On the Dark Side,” the Cruisers big hit in the film, was the number one song in the country. Embassy Pictures re-released the film for one-week based on successful summer cable screenings and popular radio single but it failed to perform at the box office. The film and the album eventually did well enough to make way for a sequel – Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives (1989) – that saw Eddie as a construction worker in Montreal (?!). Davidson was offered the sequel but was not crazy about the idea and wanted no part of it. With the exception of Pare, Laurance and Cafferty, nobody from the first film had anything to do with it and the less said about this awful film the better. After the commercial failure of the first film, Davidson has continued to work steadily, mostly in television, directing episodes of Law & Order, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope and Judging Amy but has been inactive since 2002.

It’s interesting that the initial rise and fall of Eddie and the Cruisers mirrors the arc of President Kennedy. The band peaks during his presidency and Eddie disappears and his band breaks up after Kennedy is assassinated and the country was thrown into turmoil and disillusionment. This parallel seems more than just a coincidence so I’m sure Davidson had it mind when he wrote the screenplay. What is so endearing about Eddie and the Cruisers is the idealism that permeates the film as embodied by Eddie’s desire to create songs that will allow him “to fold ourselves up in them forever,” as he tells Frank at one point. The film has an internal conscience and celebrates the notion that music can take you to another place and make you forget about your daily problems for a few minutes. This is tempered by a melancholic tone that permeates all of the scenes that take place in the present. Eddie’s death and the end of the Cruisers hangs like a heavy cloud over the surviving members and all of the old feelings and memories are dredged up thanks to Maggie’s inquiries.

Eddie and the Cruisers celebrates getting lost in the music and how it makes you feel. This is pretty ambitious stuff for a little a film about a reclusive singer for a bar band. And, for the most part, the film pulls it off. Along with Almost Famous (2000) and Hard Core Logo (1996), it is definitely one of my favorite films about a fictious band. Davidson is still proud of his film but is bitter about how it was handled. “That picture should have been a theatrical success. There was an audience for it. People still watch it and still tell me about it.” Eddie and the Cruisers has aged surprisingly well and over time all the good notes are intact.

I would be remiss without giving a shout-out to John Kenneth Muir's book, The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia for providing the bulk of the production information contained in this article.


SOURCES

Fragoso, Sam. "Ellen Barkin on Great Directors and Her Favorite Roles, from Diner to Buckaroo Banzai." The A.V. Club. March 14, 2015.

Muir, John Kenneth. The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. 2007.

12 comments:

  1. Hey J.D. Great post. I love this movie. It's one of my favorite movies from my youth. I watched it countless times on video back then.

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  2. Hey Keith! Thanks for stopping by and the nice comments. Yeah, I remember when this film first came out. I had forgotten about it for years but caught it on VH1 Classic of all places and re-discovered it all over again.

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  4. I popped this in the queue. I always loved the hit song, and and I'm from Jersey so I have no excuse. Plus I always liked Streets of Fire so I have to check this out.

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  5. Moviezzz:

    That's interesting about how you always had a hard time renting this film. It really found an audience on home video and TV, which is nice to see. Despite this, you just don't see much written about the film or if you do, it is usually how much it sucks, etc.

    "But thanks J.D., I'm going to have "On The Dark Side" stuck in my head all day."

    heh! It's funny you mentioned that, I just downloaded the track off of iTunes.


    Tommy Salami:

    Along with STREETS OF FIRE, this film is definitely Michael Pare's finest moment. It's a shame that both films bombed commercially. His career never seemed to recover from that. I'd be curious to know what you think of this film once you see it.

    Hailing from Jersey you should get a kick to all the references to Wildwood, Asbury Park and there's even a couple of scenes shot in Ocean City.

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  6. Great post, J.D.

    I really enjoyed this retrospective of a film I've loved so much over the years. Thank you for the shout-out to my book, as well.

    And congratulations on your LAMMY nomination -- it is well-deserved! Great recognition for a great blogger.

    best,
    John Kenneth Muir

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  7. John Kenneth Muir said...

    John Kenneth Muir:

    Thank you so much for the compliments! It really means a lot.

    And also, thanks to your book, I was able to find all that valuable behind-the-scenes info about the film. There is a terrible lack of info on it out there so your book is a great resource.

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  8. Great essay/review.

    The most "interesting" thing about the horrid sequel is that they say changed Eddie's dissappearance to1969... no doubt to account for the actors' lack of aging.

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  9. Rob Zero:

    Thanks for the kind words. Good call on the data change for Eddie's disappearance in the sequel. Just another awful thing about that film.

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  10. Hi is there in this movie where a song starts playing and there is a fence in the movie while it's playing , i use to love this song but can't remember it , please help

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  11. It really surprises me when anyone would listen critics like Ebert about any movie. He is an idiot with no imagination. This movie was awesome in its own rite. I still have my copy and am looking for Eddie returns, seen it loved it and want it in my collection.

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    1. You're telling me the man who wrote this screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls had no imagination? Maybe he was always a little bitter over not being sucessful in the industry himself, and maybe his taste just wasn't the same as most of us, and maybe those commercial critics got kickbacks for saying they like or don't like certain films, but Roger Ebert was a movie guy through and through and saying he was an idiot with no imagination is ridiculous.
      I love Eddie and the Cruisers, and many other films Ebert did not, and would always take his reviews with a grain of salt, but the man lived for movies.

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