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Olive Films has picked a winner this time. I didn't catch up with Baby It's You until DVD came along, and it's yet another John Sayles discovery that proved to be a rewarding experience. Until a few years back the prolific writer-director averaged a feature about every 18 months or so, ever since he surprised everyone with his highly regarded Return of the Secaucus Seven. 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 disc?), 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 Amy Robinson (After Hours, From Hell). The inspired casting offers the first starring film roles for Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano, and they make an intriguing couple. As opposed to most of his film work, Sayles was a director for hire on this one. The producers are Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne; it is dedicated to Dunne's sister Dominique, who was murdered not long before.
Emotions run high with young people in 1966 Trenton, New Jersey. High school drama enthusiast Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) is both repulsed and flattered by the advances of Albert Capadilupo (Vincent Spano), a handsome sly upperclassman who dresses like an oily lounge singer and calls himself 'Sheik'. Everybody warns Jill away from Sheik, but although he kidnaps Jill and one of her girlfriends in a reckless prank, his attentions slowly evolve into something resembling respect. Barely attending classes and impossibly surly toward the teachers, Albert is ejected from school after fighting with a faculty member. Jill must go to the prom with another boy. Furious when Jill decides to attend college instead of drop everything in her life to be with him, Sheik gets himself involved in a botched robbery and must leave town. But Jill finds campus life to be an iffy experience. She doesn't fit in with the disaffected and sometimes unstable students, and her high school acting is meaningless in a college setting. After being dumped by a callous lover, she joins some friends in Miami to see what Sheik's new singing career is all about. Jill is horrified to discover that Albert's performing gig doesn't actually involve real singing -- but he remains bullish on his career.
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 came from a wide mix of backgrounds. 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. To my mind, the biggest tragedy was the choices made by the graduating girls. Some were the best students, yet few had ambitions 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 apple on campus, Sheik. The guy is fashion-themed at all times. He has an attitude a mile thick. He wanders the halls at will 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. High hopes are sometimes flattened by reality, just as in real life. Sheik acts like a hood and hangs out with local wise guys, 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. She 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 disappointment. Jill realizes that she's no longer a special case, or the smartest girl in school. Her acting dream disappears almost immediately. She makes social mistakes, like getting roaring drunk (and then sick) with a group of her friends, which leads her date (Matthew Modine) to assume that she's easy. Other women in her dorm prove to be cynics or snobs. 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 the later Peggy Sue Got Married), Sheik harbors 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, he 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 there to hide the producer's lack of faith in the material, as with the song-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 one could 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.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Baby It's You is a bright HD encoding of this mostly forgotten little gem from the '80s, when films were overrun with interesting actresses and not enough good roles for them. The widescreen HD transfer is sharp and clean. Colors are somewhat subdued and early scenes actually look a little hazy, low in contrast. I stopped noticing that after a few minutes.
The music cues have a mellow presence. I was once told that music was altered for some video releases, but I've recently received a helpful note from 'Jonathan H.' contradicting that information.
John Sayles is on record saying that he's very happy with Baby It's You. The studio wanted to re-cut it, and did so even though he threatened to withhold his name as writer and director. "I kept saying 'I'm not bluffing,' and they didn't believe me."... "and we weren't talking about little minor things, we were talking about big differences." 1 When Paramount's version didn't test any better than his did, they figured it was less grief to put out Sayles' cut. Is this encoding all of Sayles' cut, with the music he chose? I'd like to know.
Baby It's You features a quick cameo by a young Robert Downey Jr. He's there all right, but look fast if you want to see him.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hi Glenn. Your previous reader is wrong on this one. Bruce Springsteen's music has NEVER BEEN REPLACED on home video editions of Baby It's You. The missing tunes are detailed in the attached PDF. (Note: the PDF offered is an article from 1989 in which John Sayles talks about the film's slow path to video because of music issues.) Twenty-five songs had to be cleared and all but four were. "Shout" became "Surfin' Bird," "Lover's Concerto" became "Sweet Talking Guy," and two Simon & Garfunkel tunes were dropped in favor of songs from The Mamas and the Papas.
I've seen the film on cable, where it plays with the original theatrical soundtrack intact. But I don't recall the exact Simon & Garfunkel tunes. In this trailer, you can see where "Shout" originally appeared (replaced on video) by "Surfin' Bird."
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