Johnny Suede
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Johnny Suede

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When most people look at an old yearbook photo they cringe. There is nothing like seeing yourself from years ago; the horrible clothes, the bad hair, this blast from the past are upsetting. For an actor of global fame the experience can be even worse. Now Brad Pitt is considered one of the most recognizable men in the world. He graces the covers of every magazine, many hailing him as the sexiest man alive. Pitt is surrounded by an army of photographers even if he is just taking the kids to a fast food joint. Image his reaction if he happened to watch one of the latest releases from Starz / Anchor Bay, namely ‘Johnny Suede’. This flick had its theatrical release way back in 1991, just before Pitt got his big break in ‘Thelma & Louise’. Before that he was a struggling actor with bit parts on television and small films. To look at the handsome Pitt in that movie is a shock. First of all he sports a mile high pompadour that was so big it should have had its own screen credit. Still Pitt seems to be the kind of man with a sense of humor and may even get a chuckle out of watching this flick. After all it did help launch a career that most actors can only dream about.

Pitt was not the only actor from this film that went on to much greater success. The flick features Catherine Keener and Samuel L. Jackson. If you keep your eyes open you can spot Tina Louise in a post Gilligan's Island stint in one of her last film appearances. A film like this can help make careers like this only if it was a hit. This one was praised at the International Film Festival Locarno and the very important Sundance Film Festival. It may seem like a silly piece of fluff from the title by just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover don’t think you know this movie by its title. The film’s style goes a long way to make this film work. This is due to the talent of writer-director Tom DiCillo. He cut his teeth in films working as a cinematographer on such films as ‘Permanent Vacation’ and ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’. This is far from being a mainstream movie. Its main appeal will be for those who enjoy a quirky cult classic or are able to immerse themselves in the retro style of the film. The story is moody and at times very dark. Even in an odd film like this the talent behind and in front of the camera shines through.

The film opens in a dank, dirty men’s room. Standing at the mirror is Johnny Suede (Brad Pitt), carefully combing his pompadour. Johnny runs his fingers approvingly over his white jacket and skinny black pants. The only thing that upsets Johnny is his shoes. They are worn brown and dingy. For a man of his style he needs a black suede pair for his feet. He walks out of the restroom through a room filled with people with underwear on their heads. DiCillo doesn’t waste time setting the stage for the strangeness yet to come. Across the room Johnny spots a beautiful young woman, Darlette (Alison Moir), thankfully without the white cotton headgear. He leaves and walks down a deserted street. He sees a man having sex with a barely conscious woman. Another may asks Johnny to join he; wordlessly he walks away but goes to a phone booth to report the incident. Karma seems to reward Johnny when he notices a hat box on top of the phone booth. Inside is a pair of brand new black suede shoes just the right size. Now he feels his look is complete. In this opening the film drifts into Johnny’s life. Johnny’s idolizes the signer Ricky Nelson. At home Nelson’s pictures are all over. Johnny listens to an old 45 record of Nelson’s on a tiny player as once again he makes sure his hair is perfect. Now he has a new routine, gently brushing his new shoes. His apartment is a mess. It would be condemned under any building code possible. Johnny wants nothing more than to be a famous singer like his hero. He envisions himself crooning on television to adoring fans. As he later states music just comes out of him. In fact Johnny has written his lyrics all over his apartment walls. His only real friend is a local kid Deke (Calvin Levels). For his young years he is far more realistic than Johnny about the practical aspects of life. Deke does have his fanciful side though; he is the keyboard player for the not yet in existence ‘Johnny & The Persuaders’. With his new footwear in place things are looking up for Johnny. It starts with expanding his circle of associates. He meets Freak Storm (Nick Cave), A Lou Reed wannabe with white hair and teen heart throb. He also meets the girl of his dreams, Darlette who is attractive but not the sharpest knife in the draw. She is wealthy thanks to her mother (Tina Louise) who is a record producer. With all Darlette has going for her she has an older boyfriend that is physically abusive. Also in Johnny’s life is a teacher, Yvonne (Catherine Keener) who is intelligent and witty.

‘Johnny Suede’ is the kind of movie where the story is secondary. The film is completely character driven. The plot, what there is of one, is only there to hold the vignettes together in some semblance of order. The introduction of the shoes is the catalyst for the transformation of Johnny. Like a good movie MacGuffin they matter a lot to the character but not the audience. When Johnny puts on the shoes he feels his life is finally on the right track. He meets Darlette who helps him get his guitar out of hock but she is too vapid to commit to the kind of relationship he needs. Even the fact that her mom is a record producer seems to be just what Johnny needs. It isn’t. If anything the moral of the film is what we dream of, what we want is not necessarily what we need. This is reinforced when Johnny meets the more down to earth Yvonne. She introduces him to reality and shows him it isn’t that bad after all. The brilliance of DiCillo’s direction here is reality can come through surrealistic surroundings. Since DiCillo comes was a cinematographer it is only natural that he employs a visual approach to relating the characters.

Most actors can handle a role based on a well honed script, one that uses words to advance a story. In a film like this that is so visual in nature it takes a special kind of actor to handle the role properly. Brad Pitt proved he is such an actor. He may be considered a ‘pretty boy’ actor but this role demonstrated to the casting directors he would met that he was a real actor in every sense of the word. For a man to wear such a ridiculous hair piece and act as if it is nothing unusual takes an actor of true merit. He holds true to his character with skill.

Once again Starz / Anchor Bay score a home run. This title was originally released years ago by Front Row but that edition was in the dreaded Pan & Scan. With a film so dependant on the visual this is more than the usual crime against the art of cinema. Starz / Anchor Bay is committed to giving the discerning film buff what they want, the film in it’s original format. With this in mind they present the movie in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with an anamorphic transfer to boot. The audio is also in the original mono sound track. There is also a commentary track by DiCillo that goes into detail about bringing his vision to the screen. This is a keeper no matter what you think of the title or pompadours.

Posted 12/29/07

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