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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Johnny Suede
Johnny Suede
Starz / Anchor Bay // R // January 15, 2008
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted January 17, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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THE MOVIE:

I do love a good pompadour, so no one is more surprised than me that 1992's indie hit Johnny Suede hasn't held its shape in real life the way it has in my memory. Brad Pitt sports a massive head of hair in this early starring vehicle, and you know, the bigger the hair, the closer to God. Except in this case, apparently the weight of that particular tower of Babel has dragged this black comedy down.

Johnny Suede is a naïve guitarslinger who scrapes an existence in the lower depths of New York out of hokum and swagger. He's the kind of hipster oddball who is always getting a band together, but never quite does. The stories he tells are as big as his hair, and his charm works on everyone for a little while before eventually falling flat. Johnny's luck seems to be taking a turn when a pair of bejeweled suede shoes falls out of the sky, lending a new spring to his step. He claims they make him light on his feet, a character trait the women in his life are eventually going to find is more than metaphorical. He first meets the adorable Darlette (Alison Moir), who dates Johnny while also dating an abusive older man. Johnny threatens to clean the guy's clock, but just like with everything else important, he's always got a reason not to confront his violent rival. From there, he tries to settle down with the far more responsible Yvonne (Catherine Keener), whose work with developmentally disabled children is probably what gives her the patience to put up with Johnny's antics.

Ultimately, the relationship with Yvonne and the selfish mistakes Johnny makes within it are intended to show the character growing up, getting over his childish lifestyle and learning what it means to have something real in his life, something more than a pair of fancy shoes. When it comes down to it, though, Johnny's reversal is an empty gesture, a period placed arbitrarily into a sentence because the words have to end somewhere. There is nothing really there to convince us that the transformation will stick, Johnny has lied and even betrayed his own desires before, so why change now? Maybe if I were more invested in the character, maybe if I believed Yvonne would take him back once, let alone twice, the maturation of Johnny Suede would mean something to me; unfortunately, it doesn't.

Not that Johnny Suede is a complete waste of time. Brad Pitt is fantastic in the part, completely convincing as the slow-witted poser in way over his head. The actor's natural charms lend credence to the other characters' fascination with him, since those charms nearly sway us into believing the movie is deeper than it is. Nick Cave also has a marvelous small role as another high-coiffed singer, the appropriately named Freak Storm. Freak is like an older version of Johnny, strung-out but still running his cons, still maintaining the pose. Given that writer/director Tom DiCillo had been the DP on the earliest Jim Jarmusch films, one has to wonder if the choice to give Cave a white pompadour was merely to differentiate age, or if he's having a laugh at the expense of his former collaborator.

Jarmusch isn't the only pompadoured filmmaker who I think has fallen under the gaze of DiCillo's satirical eye. The babe-in-the-woods narrative, detailed dream sequences, and anachronistic cool often play like a send-up of David Lynch films, particularly the then in-vogue retro chic of Twin Peaks. Sadly, Johnny Suede gets bogged down by other film trends from the early 1990s. It has the quirky pretensions of so many of the indie films of the post-Sundance explosion, and it's a style that hasn't ripened in intervening years. The film has a lot of style, it has it in spades, but it ends up being emotionally empty. The weirdness comes off as antiquated and misguided now.

Tom DiCillo would go on to do better things, including the full-on indie film parody Living in Oblivion. I respect Johnny Suede as a first-time effort, and I appreciate the creator's willingness to try to make something different than the norm. When I was young, the youthful folly of it worked for me; it's just now that I'm older, I've found the film hasn't grown with me.

THE DVD

Video:
When the first credit for Johnny Suede appears on screen and the frame starts vibrating, you know you're in trouble. This DVD has a pretty bad transfer. Though ported to disc as an anamorphic widescreen picture, very little restoration work was done on the movie. The image is grainy with blotchy colors, with persistent surface spotting and poor resolution. A line appears and runs down the screen at least twice, and overall, this looks like a washed-out version you'd see on cable.

Sound:
The mono mix of the soundtrack is pretty much in line with the sorry picture. The audio is hollow sounding with quite a bit of distortion, including at least two instances of loud static and one occurrence of the sound dropping out in the middle of a line of dialogue (in Vatherine Keene's first scene). Did no one watch this movie before they sent it to press?

Extras:
An audio commentary was recorded by Tom DiCillo in 2005 for a DVD release in the UK--judging by the comments he makes in regards to Tina Louise--though it was apparently released in the U.S. then, too. He's a talkative guy, making for an interesting commentary, detailing the origins of the picture and the challenges of making an indie film. DiCillo speaks forthrightly, and he has an excellent memory for detail and is willing to dish a little dirt, including in regards to his own work. This is the rare case where the director commentary is actually more interesting than the film itself.

You can also watch the original theatrical trailer.

The disc has a one-sheet insert with the film's chapter listings on it. I will say, this DVD has one of the best covers I have seen in a long way. Kudos to whoever cooked that up.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Johnny Suede comes off as an artifact of a bygone era. Knee-deep in early '90s indie preciousness, it hasn't waded into a new decade without carrying the stink of the old one with it. Brad Pitt, in his first starring role, already shows the natural screen presence that made him a star, and some of the style choices also work really well, but when it comes to the heart of the picture, style overshadows substance. Johnny Suede's transformation isn't convincing, and it prevents the movie from being a keeper. So, Rent It and check it out as a time capsule of the period; even if the movie were better, the poor DVD presentation should dissuade anyone from buying it.

Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.

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