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Discovering the films of John Sayles on DVD has been a rewarding experience. The prolific writer-director has averaged a feature about every 1.5 years since 1980, when his highly regarded Return of the Secaucus Seven surprised everyone. Sayles' films play as more heartfelt and 'real' than similarly themed movies made around the same time. Secaucus is less glitzy than The Big Chill and The Howling has a lot more going for it than An American Werewolf in London. And nobody has made films as passionate about their subjects as Lianna, Matewan (where's that DVD?), Lone Star and Casa de los babys.
Sayles' third feature Baby It's You becomes a real winner once one gets beyond the unimaginative title. It's sort of an anti - American Graffiti, the story of one teenager's passage from high school to college in the odd years of the late 1960s. Sayles wrote it from a story by his producer, Amy Robinson (After Hours, From Hell). The inspired casting offers the first film starring roles for Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano, and they make an intriguing couple.
Baby It's You is the first film I've seen that presents high school in the 1960s as this reviewer remembers it. The classes ranged from interesting to deadly, student friends were from a wide mix of backgrounds and most of us lived in awe of the 'celebrity' classmates that distinguished themselves with special talents or outlandish reputations. Our high school was notorious for Prom Night tragedies. As late as 1970 the only official response to the drug problem was the occasional educational film. By the time we were seniors the halls were abuzz with news of girls who had dropped out for unspoken reasons. The biggest tragedy to my mind were the graduating girls, many of whom were the best students but had no ambition beyond immediately marrying some guy or another. How many of them found happiness with that route, I have no idea.
Rosanna Arquette's Jill is a nice, ambitious girl with good social skills and a sharp mind. She knows what she wants, and even her parents give her a wide berth. She nabs the lead in the school play around the same time she attracts the attention of the baddest boy on campus, Sheik. The guy is fashion-themed at all times and has an attitude a mile thick; he wanders the halls and thinks nothing of breaking into classes to talk to Jill. And they aren't even boyfriend and girlfriend yet.
Sayles' script is edgy and unpredictable: crime isn't punished directly and high hopes are sometimes flattened by reality, just as in real life. Sheik appears to hang out with local wiseguys and acts like a hood, but he and his scuzzy friend 'Rat' (Gary McCleery) are rank amateurs at crime. Emotionally erratic to the point of being frightening, Sheik attempts to scare Jill into being his girlfriend, just the kind of immature stunt one might expect. He ends up winning her with the intensity of his attentions, and his flair for romance: their signature tune is Strangers in the Night. Jill's prom turns into a weird experience, with her official date furious that she's pining for another boy. Jill discovers that one of her friends has slept with Sheik. The girl claims she likes the sex but it's painfully obvious that she doesn't believe she has any other way of attracting a boy.
College turns out to be a complete reversal, when Jill realizes that she's no longer a special case, or the smartest girl in school. Her acting dream goes poof and she makes social mistakes, like getting roaring drunk (and then sick) with a group of her friends, leading her date (Matthew Modine) to assume that she's easy. Other women in her dorm prove to be cynics or snobs and one girl goes quietly insane, and nobody seems to care. Jill is disillusioned. She's in danger of losing some of the spark of youth, even though she's barely begun to live.
Like Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married), Sheik has unrealistic dreams of a show business career based on image rather than talent. He talks a good line but takes it hard when his hopes vanish. Still a punk, Sheik steals a car and hightails it from Florida to Jill's northern college, just in time to rescue her self-esteem. Sheik is broke, but he's got his tuxedo and can serve as a last-chance prom date. What they missed in high school, they might be able to straighten out in their lives to come.
Sayles has a great cameraman (Michael Ballhaus) helping him to float this very well produced movie -- the locations, actors and direction are exceptional. Sayles also has a good sense for using music. Although some of the choices seem slightly anachronistic, the 60s tunes make their statements without dominating the show; they aren't annoying patches hiding a producer's lack of faith in the material, as with the cue-riddled 1990 Mermaids. Vincent Spano is certainly good but it's Rosanna Arquette's movie. She's heartbreakingly on target as the smart girl who discovers that she's made a commitment to the oddest guy she ever met.
The interpersonal details are what makes Baby It's You work so well. Jill's high school drama teacher (Leora Dana of Some Came Running) thinks nothing of giving Jill stern 'advice' based on rumors and gossip: Ditch that Evil boy or kiss your acting career goodbye. Jill's parents are almost intimidated by their forceful daughter. The insightful sketches of various college kids show us a mix of adolescent and adult behaviors. Despite the 'R' rating, it's a real movie, not a 'coming of age' sex romp. I'm very glad I caught up with it.
Legend Films' DVD of Paramount's Baby It's You is a mostly excellent presentation of this colorful show. The transfer is fine, but a random dirt speck here and there tells us that this isn't as spotless as a new film would be. The music cues have a mellow presence. Unfortunately, I can't confirm whether or not any tracks have been replaced for video. As the film was produced in 1983, I'd think that everything would be properly licensed and cleared for all media. 1
The packaging makes special note that Baby It's You features a 'star turn' by a young Robert Downey Jr. He's there all right, but look fast.
I'm not sure when this disc's street date is. Legend Films is selling early copies through its Legend Films website.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Baby It's You rates:
1. Note: The readers who wrote in below haven't heard the disc and I have: I'm pretty sure it's Bruce Springsteen for sure singing on the tracks. If someone hears the tracks and can tell that it's some kind of really good imitator, please let me know. I doubt it. Here are the previous reader letters:
(Not so fast, Savant: A note from Jonathan Hertzberg, May 20, 2008:) Dear Glenn, Thanks for the review on Baby It's You. I've been wanting to see this one on DVD for a long time. Unfortunately, Legend Films has informed me that both Baby It's You and French Postcards contain the altered soundtracks, which have appeared on earlier video versions of these films. Both of these films are favorites of mine so I will likely end up buying them anyway, but I am very disappointed that several tunes remain m.i.a.. In the book Sayles on Sayles, Sayles mentions that Paramount dropped the ball on the music rights until the point that the fees became prohibitive. This caused the video to be held up for several years and by the time it appeared, many of the songs were replaced with K-Tel versions. Best Jonathan
Here's the e-mail I received from Maria Mason at Legend Films:
Jonathan, Thank you for your email. Yes, some music has been changed for our home entertainment versions on both of these movies. Please let me know if you have any other questions.
Maria T. Mason
(From Reader Ari Kahan, 5.22.08:) The specific music changes in this one are that five Springsteen songs (which in my view were absolutely integral to the film, as they served as the Sheik's "theme music") are all missing: It's Hard to be a Saint in the City, The E St. Shuffle, Jungleland, She's the One and Adam Raised a Cain.
In the years after Baby It's You Sayles has directed three of Springsteen's music videos, by the way. The two clearly admire one another's work, and it's a mystery to me why a deal couldn't have been struck to retain Springsteen's
music for the video. I have a hard time imagining Springsteen, who controls the publishing rights for his music, holding Sayles over a barrel on this, and can only imagine that it's due to Paramount's total indifference towards this lovely film. -- A
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