The Best Movie You Never Saw: Summer of Sam

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at SUMMER OF SAM!

THE STORY: It’s the summer of 1977, and the residents of New York City live in fear of the “.44 Caliber Killer” aka Son of Sam. In the midst of a crushing heatwave, the suspicions of the residents of the Bronx start to turn towards one of their own, Richie (Adrien Brody), who’s recently become a punk rocker, and whose best friend, Vinny (John Leguizamo) can’t stop cheating on his gorgeous wife (Mira Sorvino).

THE PLAYERS: Starring: John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, & Adrien Brody. Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, & Spike Lee.

THE HISTORY: I’m not sure what made everyone dislike SUMMER OF SAM so much when it came out in the summer of 1999. I remember it being highly anticipated at the time, coming along at a high-point in Spike Lee’s career, on the heels of the well-received HE GOT GAME. There are likely a myriad of reasons it didn’t come off – at least critically and commercially. For one thing, it was put out by Disney (via Touchstone Pictures), not the best company to handle of movie full of cocaine, orgies and murder. Otherwise, the title must have made people think they were getting a serial killer movie about the “Son of Sam.” That’s not what this is, with the murder spree more of an instigator to the various plot threads, none of which deal directly with him (you get the occasional cutaway to him, as played by Michael Badalucco).

Each one brings something different to the table. I'll always love De Palma, because Carlito's Way was where I found myself in film. And then, with Summer Of Sam and Spike, it was my best acting work to date… (on why it flopped) Could it be because it was Disney? Because of the subject matter, that it's a serial-killer movie from Disney? At least the dog talked. – John LeguizamoAV Club Interview

Instead, it’s a kaleidoscopic, multi-character study of a specific time in New York’s history, the sweaty summer of 1977, with the action based around John Leguizamo, a not always likable hairdresser (who fancies himself a Warren Beatty-in SHAMPOO style womanizer) living in the Bronx who constantly cheats on his gorgeous wife (Mira Sorvino) and wonders what the hell is up with his former pal Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who’s embraced punk.

In short, it was not the movie people wanted it to be, but this blinded them to its greatness, and if any movie in this column deserves to be rediscovered, it’s this one. Sadly, it doesn’t even have a decent Blu-ray release, and seems doomed to obscurity until some people with taste come along and rescue it.

WHY IT'S GREAT: SUMMER OF SAM is one of Spike Lee’s masterpieces, comparable to DO THE RIGHT THING, MALCOLM X and THE 25TH HOUR. It’s incredible how distinct a talent he is, and maybe SUMMER OF SAM might have gotten a little more credit had it not come out so close to BOOGIE NIGHTS, which covers a lot of the same ground (and, I must admit, is superior), as did 54 (although this kills that badly compromised flick). No director is as good as Lee as evoking a sense of community, both its good parts and bad, and this movie explores that aspect, specifically in regards to Italian-American culture of the era.

Leguizamo’s Vinny isn’t the easiest guy to like, but he’s fascinating in his flaws. Leguizamo lays himself bare here, and should have been Oscar-nominated for a performance comparable to De Niro or Pacino at their peak. His crisis of masculinity is really the movie’s core, with him impotently passing by a Son of Sam killing, and then trying to prove his manhood over and over by cheating on his wife – something that leads him down a bad path. Things get worse when the more sexually fluid Ritchie comes back to town, with his hair, clothes and faux-English accent freaking out Vinny and the rest of his crew, to the point that they assume he must be the Son of Sam killer, with disastrous consequences for all.

There’s one take where, because John and I really trusted each other, Spike was like [whispers], “Spit in her face.” And I didn’t know he had said this. But because we trusted each other, when he spit in my face, I slapped him in his face. Then we went on with the scene and I jump out of the car, screaming in this cemetery. None of that was in the script. It just happened, and it was all caught, and it was all in the movie. And I love working that way, when life overtakes the state where it’s the page, and it becomes something further than where the blueprint was. I love that way of working, and I loved working with Spike Lee. – Mira SorvinoAV Club Interview

Everything about this is on point, with Brody nailing a difficult part, while Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito (as Ritchie’s love interest) emerge as the most sympathetic characters, with them oppressed by the truly toxic masculinity in the air. Released now, I bet people would appreciate this aspect of the movie more, and Lee didn’t, at the time, get credit for how progressive a movie he made in regards to gender and sexuality.

At the same time, it’s a wildly entertaining ride, with brilliant soundtrack of disco tunes, and a propulsive pace despite the hefty 142 minute running time. It’s truly an interesting slice of life from the era, and here’s hoping Lee goes back to the disco era at some point. Heck, if Spike Lee had been in-charge of “Vinyl” or “The Get-Down”, I bet they would have been a whole lot more interesting than they wound up being.

BEST SCENE: While disco dominated the soundtrack, one of the things I remember most about seeing SUMMER OF SAM in ’99 is how it kicked-off my obsession with The Who, thanks to the use of “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in the big montage scenes – both of which rank as the film’s strongest moments.

SEE IT: Sadly, SUMMER OF SAM isn’t available on Blu-ray, but you can get the DVD cheap, or watch it in HD via streaming. This needs an extras-laden special edition!

PARTING SHOT: Again, I’m stunned more people don’t get SUMMER OF SAM. 1999 was one of the truly great years in American cinema, and to me, it ranks up there with the year’s best, like FIGHT CLUB, THREE KINGS, THE MATRIX, MAGNOLIA, GO, and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. It’s a forgotten classic, and any serious fan of movie-making of that era needs to check it out.

Source: JoBlo.com



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