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Back to the Beach

Paramount // PG // June 1, 2004
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 3, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Though it falls well short of what it might have been, Back to the Beach (1987) is a nostalgic last ride on a wave that had carried stars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello through eight Beach Party movies 20 years before. Those films, including Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach (both 1964) and, most famously, Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) were emblematic of their era and came to symbolize the drive-in movie, though the pictures themselves were almost painfully stupid. And yet there was and remains an affection for these low-rent comedies, and Back to the Beach, some of the time anyway, understands the appeal of these begrudgingly endearing films.

Two decades after Annette hung up her mouse ears (on The Mickey Mouse Club, seen in short clips) and Frankie gave up surfing and stopped being a teen idol (singing "Venus," in a snippet from American Bandstand), the couple have moved to Ohio where Frankie owns a car dealership. Annette seems stuck in some kind of June Cleaver time warp, serving nothing but Skippy peanut butter lunches -- a clever reference to Funicello's long-running TV commercials -- to son Bobby (Demian Slade). Worse, Frankie has become a stressed-out conservative who has forgotten how to have fun.

En route to Hawaii for a vacation, the family stops in Los Angeles to visit daughter Lori (Lori Loughlin), who's living with boyfriend Michael (Tommy Hinkley) on the same stretch of beach (somewhere between Santa Monica and Malibu) that had been Frankie and Annette's summer hangout. Old habits die hard, and pretty soon the now middle-aged couple have a fight when Frankie's old flame Connie (Connie Stevens) turns up. Annette instinctively grabs the nearest surfer-dude, a young cad named Troy (John Calvin), and each tries to make the other jealous. Meanwhile, Michael learns the meaning of responsibility from Frankie, while Bobby joins a punk surfing gang, modern day equivalents of Eric Von Zipper and his gang of Rats & Mice.

Considering that Back to the Beach is now as old as the Beach Party movies had been when this was made, it should come as no surprise that the picture has itself become something of a relic. The film has a very '80s feel, much of it very dated, and overall the film has a lower-medium budget look that has all but disappeared in mainstream American cinema. (If it were made today, one would expect something on the scale of last year's Down with Love.)

Six writers are credited, and it's possible, even likely, that even more had a hand in it. Despite this, no one at the top seemed sold on a single approach to the material. The film is mostly warm and nostalgic, yet often sarcastic and above it all. Sometimes it mimics the slapstick self-parody of the original AIP films, sometimes it's done in the style of an '80s teen comedy, and at yet other times it goes for Airplane!/Naked Gun type sight gags. Of course, Back to the Beach probably wouldn't have worked if it had followed the AIP formula too closely, but it's doubtful anyone was happy with its failed effort to bring it in line with '80s style film comedy.

The film works best when it lets Frankie and Annette simply be (the movie versions of) themselves. Credited as co-executive producers, both look great and to their great credit hold nothing sacred, from Avalon's "helmet hair" head to Annette's substantial bosom, finally acknowledged after all these years.

In its initial release, the one scene that nearly lifted the picture into the mainstream consciousness was Annette's big musical number, "Jamaica Ska," a perfect number in synch with the '60s movies yet (almost) contemporary. The film should have had a lot more of this. Frankie does a pretty good cover of "California Sun" with Dick Dale (& at least 2 Del-Tones, according to the film), the legendary surf guitarist having appeared in the original series.

Another highlight is the appearance of Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens), who performs an other-worldly rendition of "Surfin Bird" that has to be seen to be believed, and which arguably tops his "Tequila" from Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985). These numbers alone make the film worth sitting through once. As with the original Beach Party picture, famous (and not-so famous) stars make cameo appearances throughout Back to the Beach, though the DVD's menu screen spoils some of the fun revealing one of the best of these.

The film was apparently made without the participation of former AIP head Sam Arkoff or Orion Pictures, which by 1987 had inherited the AIP library. This may account for the fact that Frankie is never called Frankie in the film (though that's strange for several reasons) and why there are no clips from any of the early pictures, even though the script seems to cry out for them. This may also explain the unfortunate absence of other series regulars. It would have been nice to catch up with Jody McCrea, John Ashley, and hip-swaggering Candy Johnson. One also wonders if semi-regulars Don Rickles and Stevie Wonder had even been asked.

Video & Audio

Shot for 1.85:1 format release, Back to the Beach looks decent enough in its 16:9 anamorphic transfer that has good if somewhat grainy (i.e. '80s film stock) color. Originally released in Ultra-Stereo, the film's optional Dolby Surround and Dolby 5.1 mixes are pleasant but don't overwhelm. A French track along with optional English subs are also offered. There are no Special Features.

Parting Thoughts

In a way, it's almost appropriate that Back to the Beach is kind of clunky and awkward, that it has a mix of great and awful music, that its tone is as inconsistent as the surf itself. For this is very much in keeping with the original Beach Party films. They were lousy movie movies, but at the drive-in, they were classics of their kind.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.

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