It's a shame that Stephen King gets consistently dismissed as a subpar author. By his own self-deprecating admission, he's the 'Big Mac and Fries' of literature. But that's really not true, is it? Sure, the vast majority of his work has been in genre subject matter (read: horror and sci-fi) but he has also dabbled in non-fiction (On Writing, Danse Macabre), sports (co-authoring Faithful, about the Boston Red Sox), and crime. Sure, it's the scary works that have brought him fame, but it's his overall skill with the written work that maintains his almost four decades of bestselling popularity. Sadly, his success on the page has not always translated to triumphs on the big screen. You can count the number of "good" Stephen King adaptations on one hand (and maybe a couple of fingers). One example that is consistently mentioned comes from his 1982 collection Different Seasons. Also the home for The Shawshank Redemption's source material, The Body is arguably one of King's most atypical works. That being said, the resulting film, Stand By Me, stands as one of 'his' finest.
It's Labor Day Weekend, 1959 and the small town of Castle Rock, Oregon is abuzz with the latest fence line gossip - a young boy named Ray Brower has gone missing is and presumed dead. Four teen friends - wannabe writer Gordie Lachance, his best buddy Chris Chambers, and their pals Teddy Duchamp and Vern Tessio - discover that the body may be located somewhere out in the dense countryside surrounding their town, and decide to spend the next three days hiking to find it. As luck would have it, Vern's brother Billy knows about the corpse as well, and his no good hoodlum friend Ace Merrill wants to locate it as well. As they race against time and the other gang, they cement a bond that will have them looking back fondly at the time that was simpler, if often a bit sadder.
Stand By Me is the movie everyone wishes their childhood was like. It's the wistful version of our collective youthful dreams and friendships. It's universality is hard to shake, even with its '50s setting and basic boy's adventure tale narrative. It's a beautiful combination of visual notes and conversational beats, the best of what makes growing up fun and fascinating tinged with the traumas and threats that lead to the inevitable onset of advanced adolescence. Anyone whose read King's original novella knows that the movie whitewashes much of the sentiment: the boys don't suffer at the hands of the bullies like they do in the book, and Gordie is much less the focus (though he does provide the first person narration). But what Rob Reiner and his cast manage is nothing short of magical. They take the tale of four kids off to find a dead body and turn it into a lingering memory among many (if not all) in the audience. They then add humor, heart, heroism, and a haunting fatalism which elevates the film into something far more powerful. The reason Stand By Me is so effective is that people recognize it as "real life" , even when events play out like the carefully considered prose of one of the world's greatest storytellers.
The main force within Stand by Me is the friendship between Gordie, Chris, Vern, and Teddy. They have divergent backgrounds and yet all seem saddled with some serious dysfunction. Drunken fathers, dead brothers, trips to the loony bin - these boys have seen it all and yet their wide-eyed optimism speaks of an age where everything and anything seemed possible. Reiner reinforces this within the setting, giving us the innocence of early rock-n-roll with the various cultural stepping stones of the era. Together with the clothes, the primary objective (itself a boyhood fantasy), the lingo, and the remarkable chemistry between the cast members, Stand By Me settles into its dream-like delights with the ease of a favorite song. We recognize the riffs, but also lose ourselves in the various synaptic triggers firing off. As the adult writer says at the end of the film, many of us never again have the kind of friends we had as kids, and thanks to the way in which this movie makes its case, that point is hit home with sad, not overly sentimental, pow
This is really a showcase for all four young actors, especially Wil Wheaton and the late River Phoenix. They form the primary bond in the film, the link between the smart boy and the outsider who longs for something more. We constantly hear that Chris is better than his upbringing, that he slums in simpler classes in order to not make waves. But it's Gordie who keeps drawing out his closed nobility, who supports his hidden talents and his desire to excel beyond some stagnant social expectations Vern and Teddy are like temptations, illustrations of where fate has already dealt a poor, pat hand. But with his ability to write and the other's ability to play peacemaker, Gordie and Chris are capable of greatness. Perhaps this is why the last beat of the film is so unbearable. We see what everyone is talking about, and yet it never has a chance to fully flourish. That's the ultimate message in Stand By Me, beyond all the nostalgic awareness and harkening back. When we were young, everything was indeed possible. Sadly, as we age, that funny little troubled muddle called 'life' steps in and subverts our best intentions.
One of the things to remember about older catalog titles being released on the HD format is that few are going to get the kind of meticulous makeover the new technology demands. Indeed, with the cost of such a process rumored to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, many studios merely "gussy up" their gems and put them out to unsuspecting fans. Luckily, Stand By Me still looks great, with just a bit of grain and tell tale F/X mud present to remind us of its age. The 1080p AVC encode looks bright and colorful, offering a nice level of detail within the various situations and settings. We can feel the buzz of the summer insects and marvel at the youth inherent in the cast's creaseless faces. While the blacks are not as deep as one would hope, the overall image is fairly good.
Oddly enough, Columbia decides to offer both the original Mono mix of the film along with a fleshed out DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless option. Of the two, the multi-channeled version has more cinematic scope. We feel the vastness of the countryside our cast wanders through, and when the famed train track sequence occurs, the soundtrack has us heading toward the nearest 'Exit' as well. Overall, the mix of dialogue, narration, music, and ambient noise is captured well here, delivering a nicely polished aural update.
There are some wonderful extras included in this Blu-ray release, beginning with an excellent picture-in-picture commentary featuring Reiner, Wheaton, and "Teddy" - Corey Feldman. The discussion is spirited and lively (although the visual element to this bonus is more or less unnecessary) with all three added layers of anecdotal insight to the production. From friendships made to hardships endured, it's a winning overview. So is Reiner's solo alternate track. He repeats himself a bit, but also added more detail to the sometimes complex shoot. There is also a near 40 minute making-of which offers words from King himself, as well as additional behind the scenes info. There is also a Ben E. King music video for the title song, a series of previews for other HD titles, and the standard MovieIQ and BD-Live options.
Stand By Me is the kind of film that leaves a lasting impression. It has the effect of placing the viewer directly back in their own memories of childhood and stranding them there, faced with the irrefutable truth they reveal. It aches with a kind of insight that we put away in order to maintain our present sanity. It's funny and warm, exciting and enviable. It may look like a fairytale, but it sure feels and plays like real life. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this great films gets a very good HD tweaking...not that it really needed it. No matter the format, it's the emotions that make Stand By Me a classic - and what else would you except from one of the greatest writers in the world?