Sweet-sixteen years after the original release is the perfect time to launch the DVD of director/writer Tom DiCillo’s rebel-without-a-band fantasy. The film is largely populated with musical wannabes whose careers can’t find the ignition much less the gas. In the deep background are brief glimpses of society’s “not wanted on the voyage” souls including midget cowboys (The Terror of Tiny Town, 1938), “retarded” students that can’t spell “shirt”, a blind woman shopping in a grocery aisle, a rape victim who “likes it” and a drugged-up Rock and Roll mini-star (the deliciously named Freak Storm is served up with man-from-Glad panache by punker Nick Cave).
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Brad Pitt. In this, at times, manic production, he’s given the perfect vehicle to display his considerable acting chops and ever-alluring physique. Sporting nothing but worn-out briefs, scratching their contents with abandon, farting on cue and puking up spoiled chicken are just a few of the moments that he delivers character in a most personal way. Yet it’s the miraculous appearance of one-of-a-kind black suede shoes that kindles his Walter Mitty hallucinations (the ever-so flexible fabric will have foot fetishists everywhere damp before they can say “Yes, please stroke mine too.”), giving the film some of its best scenes as Johnny imagines his adulation and fame in three dimensional Technicolor or glorious black-and-white.
The trouble is, he’s a mediocre guitarist, pitch imperfect singer and lyricist tutored at the knee of cliché—no surprise there since his own teenage idol is Ricky Nelson, whose slick-back hair becomes a Brylcreem beehive in Johnny’s hands (special kudos to the makeup and hair team who also did a fab job for Calvin Levels playing the penniless artist-in-waiting’s best friend, Deke).
The actions of Johnny’s hands are not restricted to music making. DiCillo’s script spends much of its time exploring relationships. First up is Darlette (Alison Moir). She admits that he’s a “Prince in a fairytale” to which the egocentric pauper finds her to be “like strawberry ice cream.” And so to bed, but only on alternate nights as Darlette entertains and is regularly beaten by an older photographer friend, Flip Doubt (Peter McRobbie). The passing of the two suitors, camera wide open, is one of the best film noir moments (aided and abetted by Jim Farmer’s original music) in the production. But after Darlette’s mom shows her desire to “try on your shoe” (metaphors everywhere) in exchange for a push up the record-making ladder, relationship No. 1 is done.
No.2 comes in the form of Yvonne (Catherine Keener)—a no makeup, sensibly dressed special education teacher. Having dared to utter the “L” word with Darlette, Johnny takes Deke’s advice of “let them come to you” (tellingly, the same wisdom proffered for the music career that never scores a first set) and plays the aloof lover. Scene du match er, comes, when in the sack (hard-to-get does have its limits …) Yvonne’s and “now it’s my turn”—in four words summing up Johnny’s sexual prowess—leads to an ever-so-hands-on find-the-button lesson in female anatomy.
Everything climaxes on Johnny’s birthday. In just a few hours he reveals his unbridled lechery, poor lying skills, and festering cruelty. Having set in motion such a complex character, the film stumbles into the double bar as the suede rides into the sunset. This end fails to satisfy the means. JWR