Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/3/07.
The summer of 1977 in New York City was definitely the hottest and chaotic summers the city has known for. It was a year the New York Yankees were being led by Reggie Jackson. The year were a black-out ensued leading to riots in the poorer parts of the city. Meanwhile further downtown in Manhattan, two clubs were re-defining pop culture. There was the chic, glamorous world of Studio 54 with its disco music, anything goes behavior, and debauchery that was exclusive to those who wanted to be part of the in-crowd. The other club was down in the Bowery at CBGB's were it was the epic-center of the punk rock movement where it was the antithesis of everything Studio 54 stood for. That summer was also known for something far darker as many people were scared to go outside because of a serial killer named the Son of Sam who shoot people at night and sometimes, in their car. Fortunately, the Son of Sam whose real identity was David Berkowitz was captured. In 1999, Spike Lee directed a film chronicling that troubling summer for his film Summer of Sam.
Written by Spike Lee with Victor Colicchio, and The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli, Summer of Sam tells the story of an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx in danger of the killer known as the Son of Sam. Revolving around a womanizing hairdresser and his punk-rock loving friend, everyone in the neighborhood tries to find out who the killer is while dealing with the hot summer, blackouts, and the Yankees trying to win another season. Starring John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Brian Tarantina, Ben Gazzara, Arthur J. Nascarella, Anthony LaPaglia, Roger Guenveur Smith, Patti Lupone, Mike Starr, Bebe Neuwirth, Jimmy Breslin, with Michael Badalucco, and the voice of Lee regular John Turturro. Summer of Sam is an excellent, stylish portrait of the dark summer of 1977.
It's 1977 in the Bronx at a disco where Vinny (John Leguizamo) and his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) are hanging out a disco with their friends including bartender Joey T. (Michael Rispoli). When Dionna's Italian cousin Chiara (Lucia Grillo) wants to go home, Vinny was asked to take her home. Vinny and Chiara have sex in a car where another car was behind them. Returning to the disco, Vinny thinks nothing is going wrong until on his way home, he sees the same car he saw earlier where a couple was dead with gunshot wounds. Vinny realized that the Son of Sam might've seen him. Filled with guilt and paranoia, Vinny turns to Joey T. and the rest of their Italian buddies Brian (Ken Garito) and Anthony (Al Palagonia) are hanging out in their spot. Arriving onto their spot with a new look is Vinny's old childhood friend Richie (Adrien Brody) sporting a punk-rock look that's freaked out the rest of the gang. Brian's half-sister Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) notices Richie's new look which brings her some new excitement.
It's been a year that the Son of Sam has been killing people as Detective Lou Petrocelli (Anthony LaPaglia) and his partner Curt Atwater (Roger Guenveur Smith) turn to local mob organizer Luigi (Ben Gazzara) for help into catching the killer. Luigi, at first, doesn't but because of the letter Lou found, he decides to help out. Vinny meanwhile, wants to do right by not having affairs though he still has a fling with salon boss Gloria (Bebe Neuwirth). After getting kicked out in his mother's home and forced to live in the garage, Richie gets some surprising support from Ruby, who wants to ditch her disco look for the new punk look. Especially since she knows the Son of Sam is going after women with brunette hair. Dionna begins to wonder on how to satisfy Vinny sexually thinking he's cheating on her. Vinny professes his love to her while becoming paranoid over the Son of Sam. With Ruby's help, Richie gets a job dancing in gay clubs run by Midnite (Michael Imperioli) and doing porno films as the two hope to start a punk band.
Things only get worse as a heat wave arrives on New York City causing blackouts as a riot ensued in Harlem where John Jeffries (Spike Lee) is reporting on the riots while Luigi believes that the Son of Sam is trying to attack on that night during the blackout. Fortunately, he didn't while Joey T. with Brian, Anthony, and Woodstock (Saverio Guerra) make a list of suspects where Woodstock claims the killer is Reggie Jackson. During a night out in which, Dionna wears a blond wig, she and Vinny stop to see the club CBGB's at the Bowery which disgusts both of them because Ruby and Richie are there. Instead, they go to Studio 54 hoping to get in where they meet a photographer named Simon (John Savage) where they take part in an orgy that causes some repercussions.
Richie's appearance in the neighborhood including diners have made the locals uncomfortable. Though Ruby, his mother (Patti Lupone), and stepfather (Mike Starr) disagree, the neighborhood thinks Richie is a suspect where Joey T. thinks he's the Son of Sam. Especially after receiving a tip from their gay, transvestite friend Bobby (Brian Tarantina) who saw him at the gay club. With Vinny's life falling apart, he turns to drugs where he begins to think that his best friend could be the Son of Sam when really, a mailman named David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) is revealed to be the killer with .44 caliber pistol.
Spike Lee, like another New York director Martin Scorsese, knows full well of what it was like being in New York City in all of its different cultures and locations. Since he’s going back in time to 1977, Lee chooses to explore a different world than his typical world of African-American life in previous films. While there’s a few admitted stereotypes in the Italian-American characters that are known to be idiotic at times and maybe carried away. Lee and his writers do present some positive aspects of the characters since it's all about community and how they badly react to outsiders. More importantly, Lee and his writers do excellent work in creating the atmosphere of what it was like back in the summer of 1977 with brief insight into his own Bedford-Stuy neighborhood where a murder from the Son of Sam occurred.
While Lee's direction is filled with some great moments including the close-ups and moving platform shots that's a trademark of Lee. There's even some great scenery with a few music sequences as it plays well to the time. One sequence that is notable in all of its grittiness is the stuff involving David Berkowitz who claims he was ordered by a dog named Harvey (voiced by John Turturro). The film adds a bit of horror and black-humor while the scenes of murder are horrifying to watch, particularly a sequence with the voice of Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto doing play-by-play as Berkowitz hits his target. The only thing that Lee and his writers don't get right is the punk rock scene and references. While the Who are considered to be one of the influences of punk, especially through the mind of Richie. In 1977, the Who were regarded as dinosaurs in the punk community. Plus, those in the punk rock scene didn't wear nose rings or had spiky hair at that time. That's the film's only real flaw was its inaccurate depiction to the punk rock movement since it's a place that not many people, including those in that scene, want to exploit.
Helping Lee in his visual presentation is cinematographer Ellen Kuras whose stylish, colorful camera work adds an arty feel to the film. Where most of the film's exterior, Bronx scenes are wonderfully colored; the sequences with Berkowitz, including a disco orgy scene, are shot with grainy camera work to play to the film's emotions and intensity. Kuras' lighting on some of the interior scenes and sequences are superb as she is truly one of the best cinematographers out there. Production designer Therese DePrez and art director Nicholas Lundy do great work in capturing the look of the disco scenes and clubs as well as the authentic look of Italian Bronx 1977. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter also does great work with the film's 70s clothing while the punk look was outrageous despite its inaccuracies. Editor Barry Alexander Brown does excellent work with the film's editing giving the film a sense of rhythm with its jump-cuts and perspective cuts where it adds to the style that Lee wants. Sound editor Ken Lee also does great work in bringing the tense atmosphere of the times with the layers of gunshots to create suspense.
Longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard brings a wonderfully symphonic film score to play to the film's drama and the suspense towards the times. The film's soundtrack is filled with a large array of disco classics from ABBA, Thelma Houston, Marvin Gaye, the Emotions, Barry White, Chic and MFSB. Also included are cuts from the Who, Elvin Bishop, Elton John, Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, and a very appropriate cut from the Talking Heads.
The cast is wonderfully assembled with memorable small performances from Brian Tarantina, Ken Garito, Saverio Guerra, Al Palagonia, and Lucia Grillo despite the stereotypes they play. Other small roles from Mike Starr, Michael Imperioli John Savage, Patti Lupone, Bebe Neuwirth, and Arthur J. Nascarella as Dionna's father Luigi are better with Anthony LaPaglia and Roger Guenveur Smith as the cops bringing excellent support. Ben Gazzara is excellent and subdued as the wise mob boss Mario while the film also features some notable cameos from Spike Lee as a reporter, his sister Joie as a resident of Bedford-Stuy, Evander Holyfield as a person in the riots, John Turturro as the voice of a dog, and Jimmy Breslin who opens and closes the film with some narration on that dreadful summer. Michael Rispoli is excellent as the tough but cautious Joey T. despite the fact that he's an idiot at times while he's just wanting to do what's right though his intentions are wrong.
Though he's only in the film briefly and playing the role of the Son of Sam/David Berkowitz, Michael Badalucco does great work in bringing the insanity of Berkowitz while trying to hide his face and identity throughout the film. Jennifer Esposito is excellent as the lush, vibrant Ruby whose newfound sense of individuality brings energy to the film as she is one of the female character who try something new while having some great chemistry with Adrien Brody. Mira Sorvino is in excellent form as the scorned wife who wonders what she wants from her husband only to develop into a woman who realizes that she had done nothing wrong at all. Sorvino, who hasn't done a lot of great work since winning the Oscar for Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, remains to be an underrated actress.
John Leguizamo is also in excellent form as the cheating, pill-popping, paranoid Vinny whose sense of morality is question as he becomes the most easily manipulated character in the film through his friends (except Richie) and his own penis. Finally, there's Adrien Brody in a fantastic role as Richie. The misunderstood punk kid who is trying to do his own thing despite what people think he is. Though his affiliation with punk is a bit mis-guided, Brody owns the role with his wit and charm while doing some cool dances at the gay club sequences.
Though Summer of Sam isn't a perfect film, it is still an excellent chronicle of that infamous summer by the always-brilliant Spike Lee. With an excellent cast led by Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, and Jennifer Esposito, it's a film that is part nostalgia, part suspense. While it's not one of Spike Lee's classic films, it's still notable for the fact that it's a change of pace from his study of African-American life as he reveals to be a humanist director despite some of his cynical views. In the end, Summer of Sam is an excellent portrait of the infamous summer of '77 from one of NYC's finest, Spike Lee.
Spike Lee Films: (She’s Gotta Have It) - (School Daze) - Do the Right Thing - Mo' Better Blues - Jungle Fever - (Malcolm X) - Crooklyn - (Clockers) - (Girl 6) - (Get on the Bus) - 4 Little Girls - (He Got Game) - Freak - (The Original Kings of Comedy) - (Bamboozled) - (A Huey P. Newton Story) - 25th Hour - (Jim Brown: All-American) - (She Hate Me) - (Inside Man) - (When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts) - (Miracle at St. Anna) - (Kobe Doin’ Work) - (Passing Strange) - (If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise) - (Red Hook Summer) - Bad 25 - Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth - (Oldboy (2013 film)) - (Da Blood of Jesus) - (Chi Raq) - Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall - BlacKkKlansman
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