Starring Tom Berenger, Michael Paré, and Ellen Barkin
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Excellent musical about the seductive trap of nostalgia and the enigma of the past.
The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain.” What the origin of the word illustrates is that looking back on the past is a painful exercise, whether that pain results from remembering what has been lost, from pondering what can never be, or from comparing boundless potential to limited achievement.
Eddie and the Cruisers is not so much about a band as it is about the pain and ultimate futility of trying to make sense of the past. The narrative structure owes much to Citizen Kane. Here, a journalist, Maggie Foley (Ellen Barkin), seeking to exploit the nostalgia wave, decides to do a piece on a New Jersey band from the early 1960s. She plans to focus on two mysteries: their missing final album and the death of the lead singer in a car wreck. Noting that Eddie’s body was never discovered, she posits the idea that Eddie Wilson (Michael Paré)—the name recalling Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys—may still be alive. First, she visits the band’s keyboardist and lyricist, Frank Ridgeway (Tom Berenger), now a high school English teacher. Her visit prompts Frank to reexamine his own memories of his time in the band and visit his former bandmates. Each visit brings a flashback to a seminal moment in the band’s history.
Roger Ebert, a reviewer I admired very much, complains that at the end of the movie Eddie remains an enigma, but that’s where Ebert totally misses the mark. The movie’s point is that the past, lodged in fallible memory, can never be completely understood. The movie is not about Eddie, but about Frank’s coming to terms with the loss and the unsolvable mystery that is past.
Paré perfectly creates this figure, who is at once inscrutable, charismatic, mercurial, charming, maddening, brilliant, and doomed to be forever a mystery. But Paré is not the star; Berenger is. The movie is about Frank’s journey to let go. Berenger provides the solid presence in the middle of the movie that holds it together.
The movie boasts strong performances from the actors who play the bandmates, particularly Joe Pantoliano, as the band’s two-bit manager, Doc, and Matthew Laurance, as the temperamental bassist, Sal. A great sequence involves Frank going to see the bassist’s hotel lounge show, where Sal fronts an Eddie and the Cruisers tribute band. There, Sal, pathetically playing the same songs night after night, finally is the center of attention and can do the band’s songs his way.
Frank spends the least amount of time with band’s drummer, Kenny (David Wilson), but it’s this encounter that reveals the film’s key ideas. Kenny begins by saying, “Those old songs, those old memories, they’ll make you crazy, huh?” This suggests the torment that fruitlessly trying to make sense of the past is giving Frank. Yet, when Kenny sees Frank’s intensity, he warns “Don’t fool with the memories.” And, like a drug addict, but, in this case, hooked on nostalgia, Frank replies, “I’m not so sure I can stop,” and, like an addict, he lets his preoccupation with the past interfere with his functioning in the present.
Adapted from the novel by P.F. Kluge, the filmmakers wisely changed the story’s original ending, an outlandish, over-the-top bloodbath that relates in no way to the thematic threads of the rest of the story.
If people haven’t seen the movie or read the book, they may know of Eddie and the Cruisers primarily as a soundtrack album. John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band created the music for the film, drawing on their past recordings and adding original songs for the film. While the music hardly resembles any kind of music that was being made in 1963, when Eddie and the Cruisers were supposed to have topped the charts, it’s enjoyable. “On the Dark Side,” a top ten hit off the soundtrack, and, in the movie, the biggest hit for the fictional band, is a standout, as is the melancholy “Tender Years,” which evokes the film’s focus on the idea of nostalgia. The Beaver Brown Band’s saxophone player, Michael “Tunes” Antunes, appears as the Cruisers’ saxophonist, Wendell.
Eddie and the Cruisers was a box-office and critical failure when it was released in 1983. However, it’s poorly handled distribution may have negatively influenced the critics, who failed to recognize the intelligence of the film. In fact, it occupies much of same thematic territory as Berenger’s other, more well-received film from that year, The Big Chill, and does so in at least as, if not more, thoughtful way. Eddie and the Cruisers is known for being one of the first films to become a hit on cable television after failing at the box office, as audiences discovered what the critics missed, an excellent, intelligent, and enjoyable movie.