Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)
Starring Tom Berenger, Michael Paré, Ellen Barkin, Joe Pantoliano, Matthew Laurence, Helen Schneider and Michael “Tunes” Antunes. Directed by Martin Davidson. From Aurora Productions/Embassy Pictures.
Eddie and the Cruisers, once a famous bar band from Newark, perform on a tape shown on a TV screen in the offices of Media Magazine. Reporter Maggie Foley (Barkin) has a story to pitch to her bosses. She tells them the ballad of Eddie Wilson (Paré), leader of the group who drove his car off a bridge on March 15, 1964. It’s a great story, Maggie, we all remember Eddie Wilson – but what’s the hook? Maggie reminds her co-workers that Wilson’s body was never found. She tells them that the night Eddie died, he was coming from a recording studio where the Cruisers’ follow-up to their debut LP had been rejected by Satin Records. The name of that record was A Season in Hell, a title Eddie borrowed from Arthur Rimbaud, a 19th-century poet that Eddie admired and who stopped writing poetry when he was 19. Rimbaud disappeared until years later when he was discovered on his deathbed. Maggie gets the green light when she reveals that the tapes for Season in Hell are missing and puts forth the notion that Eddie Wilson is perhaps not dead at all but instead has “pulled a Rimbaud”.
Frank Ridgeway (Berenger) teaches English Lit at a high school in Vineland. On the way to work one morning, he hears “Wild Summer Nights”, a song by Eddie and the Cruisers that takes him back to his time spent as “The Wordman”, lyricist and keyboardist for the band. After class lets out for the weekend, Frank reclines at his desk and reminisces about the summer of 1962 when he worked at Tony Mart’s in Somer’s Point. He recalls the time the Cruisers played an engagement there, a time when he met the group and impressed them with his ability to turn a phrase. Frank is pulled out of his memories of joining the band by Maggie Foley who introduces herself and asks Frank for an interview. Frank demurs and heads home.
Arriving at his trailer, Frank is shocked to see that his home has been ransacked. As he assesses the damage, his phone rings. It is old Doc Robbins (Pantoliano), the manager of the Cruisers. Doc asks Frank to come and see him at WRHE, the Asbury Park radio station where he works. Doc tells Frank that the Cruisers are becoming news again and that may mean a windfall for the surviving members. Driving Doc home, Frank is told about their old bandmate Sal Amato (Laurence) who has assembled an Eddie and the Cruisers tribute show that plays the hotel lounges in the area. Maybe we can put the original band back together, Doc says but Wordman isn’t having it. When Doc shows Frank the motel room he calls home, Franks sees that Doc has had a break-in, too. Doc tells Frank that music lovers must be in search of the lost tapes of the band’s second album.
All this gets Frank recalling his life spent with Eddie Wilson. Late that night, he remembers a connection he made with Eddie’s girl, singer in the group Joann Carlino (Schneider) and he brings to mind conversations with Eddie during which the two men formed a bond that went beyond songwriting. Frank needs to see all the old guys now and catches Sal’s act at a nearby Holiday Inn. The two men reunite backstage and Sal says he was interviewed by Maggie – but it was all about Eddie and this brings up resentment and hurt for Sal.
Frank shares stories with Maggie of writing the Cruisers’ song “On the Dark Side” and of the band’s successful stint at Tony Mart’s that long ago summer. He also tells Maggie about the time he talked the band into playing the preppy Benton College, Frank’s alma mater. While walking the grounds with Joann, Frank runs into an old friend, Keith (played by John Stockwell, Christine) and reassures Joann and the band that they need not feel inferior here. Eddie and Frank have a beef which leads to Eddie humiliating Wordman on stage that night. Later, Frank had wanted to quit the band but Eddie talked him out of it.
Frank next seeks out the Cruisers’ drummer, Kenny (David Wilson), who is dealing blackjack on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. From Kenny, Frank gets a reality check; don’t mess with the past. There were bad times, too. Kenny explains that the Cruisers saxophonist, “The Bruiser” Wendell Newton (Antunes) did not in fact die of a heart attack but instead OD’d. Finally, Frank rekindles an old flame when he meets Joann at a bar. Joann says weird things have been happening to her, things that suggest Eddie is still alive. When Frank tells her that someone is after the old tapes, Joann relates the story of the fateful night when Eddie drove off the bridge. She says she knows where the tapes are. Haunted by ghosts real and imagined, Frank and Joann attempt to finally close the book on the past.
I can trace this film back to the earliest of my memories as a consumer of film and music. I can trace it back to the very beginning of film and music meaning something to me. I first came to know of Eddie and the Cruisers through the trailer which I saw on an endless loop with other films (Hardly Working) that were being shown to promote the brand new pay channel First Choice, launched in 1983 in Canada. The film was released on home video – including on VHS, laser disc and something called CED or Capacitance Electronic Disc – in 1984 and this would have been when I first saw it, when I was likely 11 years old.
I was visiting my mother and stepfather in the “rurban” community I eventually moved to and live in today. They rented Eddie and the Cruisers during my visit and we watched it. I was entranced and the next day, I walked down the street to the local Sam the Record Man. Those who grew up in my neck of the woods will know of this venerable institution that was once Canada’s largest music retailer. Oddly, there was a hole-in-the-wall location in the small town my folks lived in and I went there and bought the soundtrack on cassette. It and the 1976 album The Monkees Greatest Hits are the first two albums I remember buying myself; both at this Sam’s location. I voraciously consumed the soundtrack and longed for the day I could see the film again. I have since bought it on VHS and later DVD (a two-fer with the sequel).
Amazingly, years later, I found the 1980 book on which this film is based at my public library. I may return it some day. Author P.F. (Paul Frederick) Kluge was born in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey and graduated from Kenyon College where he now teaches creative writing. Kenyon boasts an impressive list of alumni including U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, Paul Newman, author E.L. Doctorow and Allison Janney. In 1972, Kluge co-wrote an article for LIFE magazine called “The Boys in the Bank” that was later adapted into Dog Day Afternoon. In 1996, he published a novel entitled Biggest Elvis about Elvis impersonators in the Philippines; Kluge had worked with the Peace Corps for two years in the Sixties.
The novel Eddie and the Cruisers represents for me one of the rare instances of the screenplay presenting a more satisfying story than the source material. P.F. Kluge’s novel concerns itself more with a murder mystery for some reason. While it’s been years since I read it, I recall thinking that wasn’t really necessary and didn’t fit with the screen story. Of course, I learned later that a novelist will often have a different intent with a story than a screenwriter will and neither is really better than the other. For me though, a whodunit gets in the way of what I love about this property and that is the ethos of Eddie Wilson. The novel also contains no references to poet Arthur Rimbaud nor to his work Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) but instead puts forth as inspiration Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass.
It seems that writer and director Martin Davidson – born 1939 in Brooklyn – is one of those filmmakers I often run across that got everything so very right only once and could never quite put it all together a second time. Eddie and the Cruisers is a film for the ages but Davidson never did scale the heights again. He does however have a couple of interesting credits that precede our film. Martin co-scripted and directed The Lords of Flatbush (1974), his Hollywood debut. A notable film that was released at a time when films and TV shows depicting the 1950’s were all the rage, this movie featured performances by young actors Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler. After this came 1978’s Almost Summer, a movie I only know about because of its soundtrack that I found on cassette back in the day that features music from Mike Love and his “band” Celebration. It is one of the few things Love has been able to do outside of the Beach Boys. Almost Summer, incidentally, was a Motown Production, the company’s only film to not feature blacks predominantly. Then came Martin Davidson’s divine inspiration.
Davidson took a chance and purchased with his own money the rights to Kluge’s book. He hoped that a film version would be his way to honour the music that he had loved all his life. He wrote the screenplay with his sister, Arlene, and the two focused on what they called a “Citizen Kane-style story structure” that would focus on “the search” for Eddie and his legacy. Making the screenplay about this as opposed to the murder that takes place in the book is what gives this film its enduring appeal. Martin and Arlene Davidson are to be applauded for gifting us with this one perfect film. Martin would direct only three more features before turning to television where he would direct episodes of series such as Picket Fences and Chicago Hope. His final feature film was Looking for an Echo (2000). In it, Armand Assante plays the lead singer of an oldies group who reminisces about the past and attempts a comeback.
Embassy Pictures was once Avco Embassy, the name they were using when they released another of my Top 25, The Graduate. They had dropped the “Avco” and had fallen on hard times by the time they offered Martin Davidson the most money of any studio to distribute Eddie and the Cruisers. But Embassy was unable to properly market the film and even botched its proposed release date in the summer of 1983. It was finally released in September by which time the kids who should have made up the movie’s audience were back in school. The film went nowhere. And then came the pay TV phenomenon I have already discussed. Davidson found out second-hand that Eddie and the Cruisers was about to be shown on HBO. The film eventually became one of the tent pegs that propped up the nascent cable industry. As the film was gaining visibility on pay TV, Embassy re-released it to theatres where it still failed to find an audience. It was unique in that Eddie and the Cruisers became popular through its broadcast in people’s homes, be it on VHS or on HBO; one of the first films, perhaps, to do so. It has through the years gained a reputation among discerning film fans and has now attained a singular cult status. It has become a legendary film.
Tom Berenger’s name was the biggest one on the cast list, at least around Hollywood. Tom had generated buzz as part of the cast of the highly-anticipated The Big Chill, a film that made him a bankable star and one that came out 5 days after Eddie and the Cruisers. 1986’s Platoon put him over the top. For his role as Staff Sergeant Bob Barnes, Berenger won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and was nominated for an Oscar. He carried on with successful films like Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), Shoot to Kill (1988) with Sidney Poitier and Major League and Born on the Fourth of July both in ’89.
Later Tom appeared as The Substitute in 1996, a movie that spawned three direct-to-video sequels starring Treat Williams. I was happy to spot Tom in the excellent Training Day (2001) and he later added Christopher Nolan’s Inception to his resumé. All in all, Tom has had a long and respectable career but he will always be The Wordman to me.
And Michael Paré is forever Eddie Wilson. Michael was born in New York City one of ten children to a French-Canadian and his wife. He was discovered working as a chef and landed a starring role on TV’s The Greatest American Hero before being tapped to play the leader of the Cruisers. Paré embodies Eddie Wilson thoroughly – perhaps too thoroughly for Michael’s own good as he was never able to step out and forge a path to stardom. He’s had a respectable career, however, and after our film starred in the unique “neo-noir rock musical” Streets of Fire in 1984. Things looked promising when he next starred in the ambitious science-fiction film The Philadelphia Experiment in that same year. But after a clutch of big-screen flops, Paré tried his hand at TV and spent two seasons playing Sgt. Joey La Fiamma on Houston Knights. But the year after that show wrapped, Michael returned to the role of Eddie Wilson in the sequel that may have single-handedly sabotaged his career. More on that later. Michael is nothing, though if not resilient, I’ll give him that. He went on to amass over 200 screen credits including a couple highlights like Hope Floats in 1998 – a film with Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick that I have a history with – and The Lincoln Lawyer (2011). Today, Michael Paré retains his career and his healthy physique and he also retains the honour of having given life to Eddie Wilson.
Ellen Barkin shows up in some of my favourite movies. She is the only cast member of our film to have negative memories of making this movie. It was at the outset of her career and it apparently was a lot of money for the little work required. She eventually asked for her name to be removed from any promotion for the film. She had already at this point appeared in my second-favourite film of all time, 1982’s Diner and soon she would break out in The Big Easy, another of my Top 25 favourites that I’ve reviewed in these pages. See my thoughts on Ellen here.
Joe Pantoliano also has a penchant for showing up in great films. “Joey Pants” from Hoboken is a well-liked “good fella” who was first noted for playing Guido, the Killer Pimp in Risky Business, released the same year as our film. Now, dig some of the movie’s Joey’s been in; one of my Top 25, La Bamba (1987), Midnight Run (1988), The Fugitive (1993), all three Bad Boys films, The Matrix (1999), the excellent Memento (2000) and Daredevil (2003) among some 150 other credits. Add to this the fact that he won an Emmy for his portrayal of the brutal Ralphie on HBO’s The Sopranos – often considered the greatest television program ever – and you gotta love Joe Pantoliano. He has struggled with mental health and has started a non-profit to raise awareness.
Matthew Laurence plays Sal Amato, the “dumb guinea”. Laurence has been unable to stay gainfully employed as an actor but I have a soft spot for him. He appears in three properties that are near and dear to my heart. He is Sally in both Eddie and the Cruisers films, he plays Ron Dellasandro, Jules’ neighbour and decorator in St. Elmo’s Fire and he also portrayed, over a 9-year span, Mel Silver, David Silver’s father on Beverly Hills, 90210. Brooklyn’s Helen Schneider has had an interesting career. Since the late 1970’s, she has been a success in the music industry in Germany. She has name recognition there and has had many hits on the music charts in that country. Since 1976, she has released almost 30 albums. Not big in Hollywood? Who cares? There are other places in the world to make your mark. Eddie and the Cruisers remains Helen’s only American film. Michael “Tunes” Antunes doesn’t have any lines but the sax player for the band who provided the music for the film obviously looks the part as “The Bruiser” Wendell Newton.
Fans of old time rock & roll need to look up Tony Mart’s, as I did. A legendary establishment in Somer’s Point, New Jersey, it had been a noted venue for live music since the 1950’s. It enjoyed a heyday in the early 1960s, making it an appropriate venue for an Eddie and the Cruisers engagement. The movie shot at Tony Mart’s for 20 days in May of 1982 and the film company brought down the curtain; Tony Mart’s was sold not months later. Their active website makes clear that Tony Mart’s is still a name in the area and a prolific promoter of live music in and around Somer’s Point. See their website here.
George Daynor was a publicity hound. After the former Alaskan gold miner lost his fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929, he said that an angel guided him to Vineland, New Jersey and provided him with the plans for a monument to that which the Great Depression could never destroy. He called it Palace Depression and it was a building and grounds made entirely of junk. The eccentric Daynor died a pauper in 1964 and soon after a fire destroyed much of Palace Depression. In 1969, Vineland officials decided to tear it down but obstacles delayed its razing. Kevin Kirchner had toured Palace Depression – or the Palace of Depression – when it was owned by Daynor. In 1969, Kirchner found himself the head of Vineland’s licensing and inspections department and instead of authorizing its destruction, Mr. Kirchner was determined to restore the landmark. This restoration continues today, spearheaded by the next generation. See Kristian Kirchner’s The Palace of Depression Restoration Association’s Facebook page here.
Palace Depression is used symbolically in Eddie and the Cruisers. Eddie takes Joann there when his world is falling apart. Eddie – a simple guy – has been hurt and rejected. He has been misunderstood and discarded yet again by the powers that be. Sitting in the midst of this junk yard Eddie tells Joann about the guy that used to own the place. He says “he actually believed that you could build a castle out of a bunch of junk. What a crock”. After a pause, it seems something has suddenly occurred to Eddie. “Holy shit”, he says, “what a phoney”. I’ve been robbed, Eddie realizes. I come from nothing. From nobody. I’m just some guy from Jersey, as Sal has just reminded him. But I always felt that I had beauty in me. I always felt that, against all the odds, if I got the chance, this beauty could flow out of me. I always thought that I could create a monument out of the trash I’ve been saddled with in life. Despite it all, I could create something great. I thought I had done that. But now I see it’s all come to nothing. Eddie gives up then and aligns himself with Palace Depression. Together, this pile of junk and I have created our own monument to nothing.
Interesting to note the people around Eddie Wilson. This part of the script is true to life as we are often aware of the players on the periphery who try to carry on once the flame they’ve attached themselves to has gone out. The Cruisers have had to make their own way ever since Eddie disappeared. Sal is very typical of many artists of that time and even today – playing the casino/state fair/hotel lounge circuit as a somewhat faded remnant of the shared pasts of music lovers. Joann is still in the business but to a lesser degree and this is also common. Frank is fascinating. He has such cherished memories of having come together with someone who brought out the best in him. When that person was gone, Frank was set adrift.
I can’t put it off any longer. I suppose we must talk about the sequel. First of all, I maintain that only in the rarest circumstances are only the worst sequels totally bereft of some benefit to the fans of the initial film. I’ve often said in these pages that sequels offer you more. And with Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! that is at the very least what you get. There was an attempt made to tell the story of what happened to Eddie after that fateful night.
The sequel was made in Canada. While normally I will favourably promote Canadian content when I run across it, in this case it unfortunately means that no one wanted to make this film and the result is a movie that looks like it was made quickly on a short budget – which it was. Sadly, the script was written by two men who had no business writing it. They were plucked from nowhere and went right back there afterwards. One writer never wrote another film – before or after – and the other wrote only one. Lady Beware (1987) starred Diane Lane and was such a botched affair that the director disowned it in post-production, it went through 17 drafts by 8 screenwriters and has never been released on DVD. That’s the pedigree of the two “writers” of the sequel. The director was a French-Canadian named Jean-Claude Lord (d. 2022) and the film was shot for the most part in Quebec.
As I’ve said, the positive with the sequel is that it exists and at least presents one version of the later life of Eddie Wilson. The negatives, though, abound. The cast is…unsatisfactory. The look they decided on for “Joe West” aka Eddie Wilson is…not good. Most heretically though is they have appropriated a scene from the first film and presented it in the sequel in butchered form. In the first film, Eddie and Wordman talk on the beach. They use this scene in the second film but when they cut to what should be Wordman, we instead see Sal Amato sitting on a fake beach in a studio in Quebec somewhere. It’s terrible and sums up what’s wrong with the movie and brings up a pertinent point about the casting of the second film.
Michael Paré hoped the sequel would do him some good and of course they wouldn’t have made the film had he not signed on. But no one else from the first film would go near this one. Tom Berenger wasn’t on hand but the chronically unemployed Matthew Laurence was. So the character of Sal appears in the sequel – as does Wendell Newton played by Michael Antunes in a flashback.
I feel like the story presented in Eddie Lives is legit enough if somewhat unsurprising in the route it took. The problems are found in the quality and production values of the movie. It is a shame that a film of the stature of Eddie and the Cruisers should be saddled with such a poor sequel. But it’s not totally devoid of value and it is worth seeing, but…dang. It looks like some of the Canadian television shows we’ve been subjected to up here for years.
Eddie and the Cruisers is a crowd-pleasing film but it also sounds some deeper notes. Along with the Palace Depression analogy noted above, the Rimbaud angle of the screenplay is compellingly significant. It is exceedingly clever and resulted in me as an eleven-year-old knowing who Arthur Rimbaud was. I should add that I have also always known what a caesura is because of this movie. I have formed friendships based on mutual knowledge of the caesura. And the premise that Eddie was so disgusted by his rejection by Satin Records that he could possibly have discarded his life as a musician in exchange for simple anonymity is quite striking.
I see Wilson as a searcher, a person who can see and feel what others cannot. And because no one else can really see or feel these things, they also cannot understand it when he presents his findings. I can discern that in a case like this the searcher must go on alone. Once he realizes his thoughts are outside the norm, he makes changes to his life to protect himself and to protect the beauty that he is still capable of making. You get all this and more from Eddie and the Cruisers. You also get a killer soundtrack, which I can’t wait to talk about in Part Two.
“Let’s get on with the music!” Head to Part Two where we’ll learn about the man behind the incredible music of Eddie and the Cruisers.
Some of the sites I visited will be of particular interest to those who grew up in New Jersey in the 1960s. But even if you’re just a fan of Vintage Leisure, you may be interested in these links
- Edgers, Geoff. ‘Eddie and the Cruisers’ was a massive ‘80s flop. How did it become a beloved cult film?. The Washington Post. (2015)
- Marz, Tommy. Eddie and the Cruisers – 35th Anniversary. Sound Vapors. (2018)
- P.F. Kluge – pfkluge.com
- Follow the Arrow to Tony Mart – tonymart.com
- The Official Palace of Depression Facebook Page here or Harris, Michelle. How Rebuilding New Jersey’s Palace of Depression Became a Family Legacy. Atlas Obscura. (2022)
- Kelly, William. Bay Shores Nightclub, Somers Point, NJ. Jersey Shore Night Beat. (2011)