Like most kids who grew up in the 80s, I’ve seen Eddie and the Cruisers probably 30 times. It played on HBO constantly in the summer of 1984, and we also happen to have taped it, so even after that my sister and I could always drag it out when bored. I went back to watch it last night and … well, it isn’t as good as I remember.
But, it hasn’t exactly been visited by The Suck Fairy either. Meaning – well, meaning two things really. First, the movie hasn’t changed, I have. It’s almost exactly as I remember it, but now that I’m older and have seen a LOT more movies, I’m more critical than 9-year-old me was. Second, there’s a better movie in there waiting to get out. If some of the things I’m critical of now had been fixed, this one would have been a genuine classic.
The first of the movie’s unfortunate flaws has to do with the actors. Only two of them – Ellen Barkin (Maggie Foley) and Tom Berenger (Frankie Ridgeway) – are really any good in their roles. Helen Schneider (Joann Carlino) and Joe Pantoliano (Doc Robinson) turn in adequate performances as Eddie’s girlfriend and the band’s skeezy manager respectively, but everyone else is pretty terrible, including Michael Pare as Eddie and especially Matthew Laurence as bass player Sal Amato. Since Eddie and Sal are critical characters, that’s kind of a drag. But that’s not the end of it.
The director is also really not what he could have been, and this has the effect of exacerbating the problems with the actors. You see, even though Berenger and Barkin turned in good performances, you still get the hint that they could have been better. Now, maybe that’s because they’re both at the start of their careers and not too confident yet, but it might also have been that the director forced them to stay on script. And man, the script has some pretty bad lines in it here and there. Maybe they didn’t look bad on paper, but unlike a novel, which just has to worry about the page, a movie is a combinatin of what’s written delivered by what actor in what cinematic setup with what production values and background music under whose direction. It sometimes happens that the line in the script just isn’t right for that combination, and so the people on the set make adjustments. There were a lot of lines in this one that struck me as needing such adjustments. Like for example when Frankie, reminiscing to Maggie Foley at the bar after Sal’s set about the Cruisers’ show at Baylor, looks to the ceiling and says "But I wanted to go. Oh God, how I wanted to go." I get the sense that Berenger doesn’t like the line, doesn’t want to say it, has something better in mind, and has been told to do it anyway. Another one would be the drummer Kenny Hopkins telling Frankie that Wendell didn’t die of a heart attack. Punching him in the chest and saying "you’ve got some growing up to do" just feels wrong. Again, possibly in the script Frankie is supposed to be more naive than we see him on screen – the point is that the guy on screen is not exactly naive. There’s a touch of that, in that he seems selective in how he interprets his relationship with Eddie and the rest of the band, but he’s not a kid, and Kenny knows that, and so the line doesn’t work. There are lots of false notes like that scattered throughout the film, and it all speaks of a director who was filming a script rather than a complete movie.
Another thing that bugs a bit is that the movie seems to want to be about the whole band, but it only allows itself enough time to talk about Frank. That’s a shame, because the band dynamics are pretty interesting. Sal and Wendell, in particular, are potentially interesting characters, and we never really get to know them. And it’s not just the band, when you get right down to it. Lots of things in the movie feel one-sided. When Eddie and the Cruisers first walk into Tony’s place, they’re unacceptably arrogant for a band that just got its one tenuous shot at stardom. That’s not out of character at all, but it does tend to write Tony out of the equation. This band might walk into this bar with that attitude, sure, but the manager of that bar isn’t likely to put up with it. But we never get to see that part. Likewise, Eddie and the Cruisers spent a whole year recording an album the record company hates, and Sal and Doc pretty much tell Eddie they told him so. But we never get to see the what must have been tension-filled year recording all of this. The scene plays like Sal just now got around to telling Eddie he thinks the new album is too much, and that’s just not logically possible.
But the thing that bugs most of all is that the movie wants to be about several rock-and-roll legends at once, and so it comes across feeling strangely unstuck in time for a movie that makes so much hay out of its timeframe. Most noticeably, Eddie and the Cruisers looks like a standin for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They have the black sax player, the otherwise useless bandleader’s girlfriend tapping a tambourine on stage, the bass player with too much ambition, and they’re all conspicuously FROM JERSEY – and the Asbury Park neck of Jersey to boot. To make matters worse, they sound almost exactly like the E Street Band, right down to the voice. All of which makes it seem a bit pointless to try to pass them off as an early-60s set. But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that this Bruce Springsteen wannabe is simultaneously trying to be a standin for, alternately, Jim Morrisson and Brian Wilson. He’s Brian Wilson in that he wants to record a magnum opus against the wishes of his career-oriented bandmates and money-fixated record company: A Season in Hell is probably meant to be a refrence to Smile. But the Eddie Wilson we see is so clearly not Brian Wilson that the reference really doesn’t work. This guy is more interested in being cool than anything, and there have been indications before that he’s really not the compositional talent in the band anyway – that was first Sal and later Frank. Also, Eddie is handsome and cut and confident, which is about as non-Smile-era Brian Wilson as it’s possible to be. Jim Morrisson is the better reference – and the frequent mentions of Rimbaud seem to back that up. But while it’s a better fit, in the end, Eddie isn’t Jim Morrisson either. He’s conspicuously lower-class, for one thing, and while it’s true that he’s more interested in being cool and edgy than in anything muscial, we the audience can’t help but notice that they missed a step with Frankie. Frank could be Ray Manzarek (he’s on keyboard, after all), but it’s Frank who’s "the Wordman," and who has to take music lessons from Eddie. The Morrison-Manzarek dynamic was just the opposite. Ultimately, both analogies fail because Eddie is actualy a pretty passable Bruce Springsteen. He’s a hell of a lot better-looking, but otherwise it works. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t seem to want to admit to itself that it’s about Bruce Springsteen, and it lets its vanity that its about the self-consciously misunderstood ARTIST types get in the way.
Now, someone will object that I’ve overstated that case a bit, and I have. There’s some indication in the movie that maybe, unlike Morrisson and Wilson (let me just interject here that I personally disagree with the filmmakers about Morrisson, who was really just a bunch of useless, pretentious, bourgeois CRAP … the filmmakers evidently take him seriously, so on the film’s terms he’s an underappreciated genius), Eddie isn’t actually anything special. That’s an angle that, if better explored, would have made this a better movie. But the ending unfortunately seems to endorse the idea that Eddie was ahead of his time – and that’s a problem for this movie, because Eddie really, really, really doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who’s ever ahead of his time. What he really is is just charismatic and good with the ladies – suited to be a cult leader, but not to be a great artist.
So, thematically, the movie’s kind of a mess, and that’s its greatest flaw.
I think this could have been a MUCH better movie than it turned out to be. What could they have done to fix it? Well, insisted on another director for starters. If anyone ruined this movie, it’s Martin Davidson – which may seem unfair since he’s also the driving force that got it made at all, but there you have it. He should have had the good sense to turn it over to someone else who was less attached to the script and could have handled good actors like Barkin and Berenger more sensitively. Also, it could have just admitted that it’s really about Bruce Springsteen from the getgo. That would have helped A LOT. There’s a reason that Jim Morrisson and Brian Wilson weren’t from the Jersey Shore, you know. To the extent they were going to throw the Jim Morrisson crap in there, they should have done it with less reverence. A story about n Eddie who’s pretty good, but who thinks he’s better than he really is, would have been worth filming.
Like Battlestar Galactica, then, Eddie and the Cruisers is a concept that deserves a second chance. Too much of the time, Hollywood remakes the movies that it got right the first time. We really, really didn’t need a new True Grit, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But a new Eddie and the Cruisers woudl be worth doing – and especially because we’d have the opportunity to get the crusty 60s generation out of the mix. Because when you get right down to it, the various problems with Eddie and the Cruisers all stem from the fact that Martin Davidson is one of those tiresome 60s nostalgists who is too much of a 60s fanboy to report on it accurately. It’s the same mistake they made letting Oliver Stone, of all people, make the definitive movie on the Doors. Best-case scenario would be to not make a movie about the Doors at all – if any band in the history of everything really DOESN’T need a movie it’s that one! – but I digress. If we must make a movie about the Doors, then not from someone who’s opinions of them were formed when he was emotionally 14 and haven’t changed since. The advantage to letting someone who is not Martin Davidson take a second crack at this movie is … well, everything. We could jettison the Jim Morrison/Brian Wilson baggage and concentrate on Bruce Springsteen. We could tell a compelling story about an alternate-timeline Springsteen who harbored artistic pretensions he couldn’t sustain. We could get a real budget and hire some real actors and hand the project to a director who knows how to work with people rather than just place them on stage. And we could make it longer and take the time to get to know some of the rest of the band – even while not loosing sight of the fact that Frank is the main character.
So, do it, Hollywood. If you must remake movies, remake this one.