The decade of the 1980s was the era of the cult movie and probably spawned more initially unsuccessful films that eventually became popular than any other period. A perfect example of the kind can be found in this moody little story about a rock band that hit it big in the early ‘60s then disintegrated under mysterious circumstances. While the mystery may not be all that clever, the characters, acting, and music make this a classic rock and roll flick.
Movies about the inherent drama found within rock and roll bands are a dime a dozen, being a kind of low hanging fruit that writers and producers can’t resist. Easy to write, easy to shoehorn a music act into, and always teeming with conflict they are also relatively cheap to produce.
So what sets this low budget flick apart from the pack?
“On the Dark Side”.
Okay, I’m being a little facetious, but once the movie premiered, vanished quietly, and moved on to cable rotation, that song dominated MTV and radio in 1984. Odds are younger folk have heard that tune on classic rock stations and never seen the movie. They have missed out on quite a treat featuring a talented cast that went on to bigger things later.
Back in the early ‘80s, I watched this film many times on cable and so it was with some surprise that I ran into a used DVD at a local coffee shop. The surprise wasn’t that it had been put out in that format, but that I’d never gotten around to purchasing it. So of course I had to buy the well battered DVD out of nostalgia and to review.
The movie begins with the previously mentioned song being played live before a 1960s audience. Don’t be alarmed by the sudden shift from film to VHS level quality! Artistic choices can be alarming, but remember not to panic since it is only a device meant to show a shift to the present – the present being 1983 in this case.
Media Magazine staff are watching archival footage of an old band, Eddie and the Cruisers in a small studio. Conveniently, they name each member of the band thereby introducing us to the cast of characters we’ll be watching for the next ninety minutes. If it feels a little heavy handed, it is. I forgive the hokey method because it helps the story get up and running very quickly.
Cheesiness aside, we also get to know the main instigator of the film, Maggie Foley (Ellen Barkin), in the scene. Blonde and always smoking a cigarette, she’s the intrepid if somewhat suspect reporter always looking to work an angle for ratings -- even if it means making things up. Pushy, blonde, and slightly seductive, Maggie appears to be a main star of the production.
Appearances can be deceiving. It may be overanalyzing, but that seems to be one of the themes of the story.
Eddie and the Cruisers hit it big back in ‘63, only for tragedy to destroy the band. Nostalgia for their music has their songs getting air play again and with that setup, the story begins to unspool. A lost album and the circumstances around Eddie’s death are the twin mysteries driving the narrative.
Not only are the fans haunted by what was and could have been, so are the remaining survivors of the rock and roll group. “Warm Summer Nights” features nostalgia driven lyric, so it is the perfect song to segue way to the real main protagonist of the movie, Frank Ridgeway (Tom Berenger). Through his eyes and memories we are presented the tumultuous events of twenty years before.
Currently a high school English literature teacher, he once was a college graduate pushing a broom at a bar on the Jersey Shore.
This was a dead period in American rock and roll, with girl bands dominating the pop charts and the British Invasion led by the Beatles yet to happen. Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens were killed in the plane crash immortalized in Don McLean’s “American Pie” three years before on “the day the music died.”
So it was the Jersey Shore sound that kept rock and roll alive during the interim, at least according to the movie. In reality, that regional sound didn’t start up until the late ‘60s. Never learn your history from Hollywood, folks.
Del Shannon’s classic “Runaway” is the trigger bringing back Frank’s memories of a fateful meeting with a pretty girl. The flashback goes somewhat awry when she turns out to have not just a boyfriend in tow, but an entire band. Still, the chance meeting would change Frank’s life forever.
Entering his life are:
Eddie Wilson (Michael Paré), the leader of the band and main vocalist. Sparse with his words and always passionate, he’s a driven perfectionist.
Joanne Carlino (Helen Schneider), Eddie’s girl and backup singer. Immediately drawn to Frank, she’s obviously going to be a source of friction within the group.
Sal Amato (Matthew Laurance) fills the role of the member chafing from being in the leader’s shadow. His tastes in music does not mesh well with the mercurial Eddie, but hey, who pays attention to bass players anyway?
The drummer (David Wilson). Not only doesn’t he suffer from sudden human combustion, he doesn’t show any signs of life or even a name. He is “just going through a phase” according to Eddie.
Wendall Newton (Michael ‘Tunes’ Antunes of the E Street Band) plays sax and that’s all. He never says a word during the entire film, in fact. There are token performances and then there is this, which is fairly ridiculous.
And of course, no band would be complete without their sleazy manager. Coming off as a low level conman, Doc Robbins (Joe Pantoliano) is something of a scene stealer whenever he gets a chance to speak.
A present day break in leads Frank to reuniting with the surviving band members one by one. Someone wants the missing tapes from the Season in Hell album that never was put out and is willing to go to extremes to do so. Against that backdrop are flashbacks to when the band started to see success. Alternating between the past and present is the structure for the movie, so this isn’t a flick you can walk out of for awhile and easily jump back into.
All the tropes need covering so the one of girls coming between band members isn’t going to be surprising. Consequently, a considerable amount of time is spent on Joann’s flirtations with Frank. Obviously still single in the ‘80s, she is the one who got away for the bookish man. His introducing her to the poem “A Season in Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud becomes a pivotal plot point in a scene that screams “pay attention to me!”
So pay attention!
There are some stand out moments depicting the band coming together with their new song writer when Frank is drafted by Eddie. The two bond quickly due to a mutual desire to create art rather than just churn out what everyone else is doing. Eddie in particular wants to make songs that “will last forever” and dubs the college boy the Wordman.
The rest of the band is not so enthused by all this, but what their leader wants, he gets.
Such treatment can engender resentment and that kind of bitterness can last for decades. Sal is that member of the group, so it is painfully ironic that he’s running around with a Cruisers tribute band to make money. Despite all the years, he’s still in Eddie’s shadow.
It is character moments like this that make the movie, since the mystery is such a straightforward story. Seeing the band members older and haunted by their brush with fame is compelling cinema thanks to their being believable characters. Anyone who has been involved with a band or has friends who were will recognize the personalities presented here.
Frank has his own mixed bag of emotions for all was not fun back in the day. Taking the band out of their comfort zone and then taking Joann for something akin to a date exposes the classic New Jersey lower class resentments seen so often in entertainment. Wordman doesn’t quite fit in with the rest, despite his humility and even temper, no matter how hard he tries.
Conflict ensues with Eddie and the immortal line “words and music” makes its debut when Frank explains his sometimes turbulent relationship with the late singer to Maggie. It seems like everywhere he’s going, the reporter is there or was just there digging for more on Wilson. Her flirtations with Frank are questionable in their sincerity adding some tension to the newshound’s appearances.
More bad memories are uncovered via catching up to the drummer, Kenny Hopkins (David Wilson). Yes, he actually has a name, though not much more in the way of a personality. Frankly, he comes off as a bit of a creep and someone you’d keep your daughter away from. Just going through a phase? Pfft, that’s his true nature.
Maggie’s digging combines with Frank’s revisiting the past leads to more questions, including the biggest of them all. Is Eddie really dead or did he copy Rimbaud by faking his death? What really happened during the recording of the second album? Who is after the tapes?
Cult movies usually become so for one of two reasons: they are so terrible they become unintentional comedies or they are gems that managed to be overlooked at first. Luckily, this movie is an example of the latter. Sincere and guileless, it never gets overly pretentious as the highly entertaining, if formulaic, yarn unspools.
Eddie and the Cruisers is an earnest movie that often has an intimate feeling about it. This is due mainly to the performances of the cast with no real weak points except for Wendall. Whether he had dialogue in the script that was cut or was provided none, Antunes got no chance to shine like the others. Given he was the only real musician amidst a bunch of actors, maybe that was for the best.
Whatever the case may be, an impression is made of dealing with real people rather than cardboard cutouts churned out from a typewriter. Hey, that’s what was used back when this was made. Fancy shmancy word processors… Real writers went deaf from the sound of keys thwacking the paper and had fingers stained with White Out fluid.
Ahem. These kinds of wandering off of subject happen when you get old.
Direction by Martin Davidson is competent, though not flashy. The same can be said about Fred Murphy’s cinematography which handles the night filming well, an important thing for a movie that mostly takes place after dark. Other than a few creative shots using mirrors, the camera work is pedestrian with no innovative angles or panning.
Music dominates much of the running time with multiple performances showcasing entire songs while managing not to come off as being forced in. For a brief time, the soundtrack made a star out of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Deservedly so, though the irony of them becoming a one album hit is a bit too on point. I have to say Paré’s lip synching to Cafferty’s vocals is pretty good and might fool a few people.
Simply put, this was an ideal movie for the MTV era it landed in, back when the cable network aired music videos, influenced cinema, and was watched by what seemed like every teenager in America. The timing couldn’t have been better for it to become a cult hit.
When we aren’t watching performances by the band, the script serves up scads of dialogue betraying the fact this is an adaptation of a novel. P.F. Kluge approved of the adaptation, but couldn’t stand the horrible sequel which only had Eddie Wilson in common with his book.
Rated PG, the movie has plenty of mild profanity and innuendo sprinkled throughout nearly perfectly fitting what the movie rating. Not really suitable for kids in subject matter, ages in the double digits will find the story more interesting anyway.
I recommend Eddie and the Cruisers to rock and roll fans, lovers of wistful characters filled with regret, and anyone who enjoys a good, solidly made movie. After all these years, it still holds up well.
MGM Home Entertainment’s DVD dates back to 2001 and is a basic offering with only the theatrical trailer for an extra.
Video quality is fairly good with demerits for occasional muddiness during the many dark scenes along with occasional dirt scratches betraying the age of the material. Time seems to have been unkind to a lot of 1980s film stock with lower quality 35mm film being to blame if I recall correctly.
The good news is that the transfer is 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen so if you are like me and only saw it on HBO way back when it is a treat to see the complete picture. Colors are well saturated and show no bleed while contrast is decent. It is not a tack sharp presentation despite the film grain being present.
Audio is typical Dolby Digital Stereo Surround, but don’t expect much in the way of back channel action. This is a solidly stereo soundtrack with no no pops or hiss, but not as spectacular as a movie about music should be. It inexplicably lacks vavoom, making me wonder if the compression was too high.
Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
Yep, it is a no frills DVD.
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
Wendall’s death by “heart attack” marks the beginning of the end for the Cruisers. I like how the scene where Eddie can’t bring himself to perform before a packed bar reveals just how sensitive he really is. Down comes the façade of his tough guy image in a great performance by Paré. While the band plays on with Joann awkwardly singing in his place, the difference without the main man is glaring.
Oddly enough, the replacement sax player doesn’t get any dialogue either. Is it racial or is there a hatred of saxophone players involved? For some reason, I find the latter more sinister.
‘80s Joann makes her entrance late in the story in a reprise of how Frank first saw her. Again the chemistry is immediate, though this time tinged heavily with regrets. The melancholy nature of nostalgia is at its purest in this reunion of these two almost love birds. It is through her memories the final hours of Eddie are revealed.
Can’t make a film about the music industry without creative differences with the money men, can you? We finally get to hear some of the music that was lost and it is clearly five to ten years ahead of its time. Featuring distortion and backwards sampling, it is dark and slightly reminiscent of The Doors.
Told it is unreleasable crap, Eddie goes off in a rage at the record label exec. However, the anger is masking something else going on with the singer.
With Joann in tow, he flees to Jersey and a castle made of junk called Palace Depression. A real life place, it was destroyed by vandals years after the movie was made. There he begins to crack up, realizing his drive to create something great has failed and that everything he’s worked toward is gone.
Here is the tortured poet fully realized with the macho mask stripped away to reveal a panicked depressive at the end of his rope. In mere hours he will have vanished and his empty car found in a river.
A recovery run by Joann with Frank to Palace Depression is successful at finding the tapes, however they fail to notice somebody following them every step of the way. That somebody has a turquoise Chevy convertible just like Eddie’s.
Somebody who sounds like Eddie calls Joann, somebody who knows all their private signals with phone calls and headlight flashing. For you younger types, this was a time honored way of communications with a gal you were dating who had hostile parents. It was another era, one far, far away from texting.
I loved Frank finally being proactive at the end, ambushing “Eddie” without Joann’s knowledge. He manned up and would have worked over his former collaborator, except it turned out to be Doc posing as the dead singer. The tapes are his last chance at making it, so he staged the break ins and phone calls.
This was quite a scene, adultly handled with a visible weariness in the reactions of Frank and Joann. Rather than being enraged at Doc, they pity the eternal loser desperate for success. Giving him the tapes, they also give him the opportunity to finally get rich. Their actions are very grown up, which can’t be said of characters in many movies today.
Also mature is the couple finally forming at the end, with both of them letting go of Eddie at long last. He was always the one thing keeping them apart, both in life and death.
Eddie’s being alive in Canada is depicted very nicely as is his reaction to the tapes finally being released. Not a word is said, just showing body language made it a perfect ending to the story and reason enough to never make a sequel. Sadly they did and you will never read a review of it here for it is supremely bad.