Blue Underground // 1982 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // December 14th, 2004
"You got someplace better to be?"
In the last two decades she's made everything from classics (Desperately Seeking Susan), to popular smashes (the pilot episode of Sex and the City), to forgettable garbage (She-Devil), but writer/director Susan Seidelman has become one of the more visible female filmmakers working today; an auteur who loves to populate her films with quirky, fashionable, feminist characters. None, however, are quite as idiosyncratic as Wren, the principal of Seidelman's 1982 directorial debut Smithereens. Through the eyes of this enfant terrible, Seidelman and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who later garnered an Oscar nomination for Philadelphia) pen a rough-edged valentine to the vibrant East Village art and music scenes of the early 1980s.
Wren (Susan Berman, Making Mr. Right) is a snotty, unpredictable young punk from Jersey trying to worm her way into New York's rock and roll elite. While out one night trying to attach herself to self-obsessed East Village musicians, Wren bumps into van-dwelling Paul (Brad Rijn, Special Effects), a nice guy from Oklahoma trying to make something of his meager artistic talent in the Big Apple. Paul doggedly follows the scene-hoping Wren around until she agrees to go on a date, but it becomes immediately apparent that she's more of an opportunistic social climber than a potential love interest. On meeting budding rock star Eric (punk legend Richard Hell, Blank Generation), Wren all but drops the increasingly exasperated Paul. Her dreams for fame seem to be falling into place when Eric agrees to take her with him on a recording session in L.A., but it soon becomes apparent that he's just as much of a flake as Wren is.
The first American independent film invited to compete for the Golden Palm Award at Cannes, Susan Seidelman's Smithereens is a treasure to be sure: an early 1980s time capsule that portrays a nihilistic New York of displaced kids up to no damn good in their pursuit of stardom. Not to be confused in any way with the band of the same name, this film finds Seidelman unfolding an engaging drama about a bratty but likable girl who can't seem to catch a break in her quest for fame or love, all splashed against a backdrop of the burgeoning new wave and graffiti art scenes.
Clearly, the most compelling reason to check out Smithereens is its portrayal of the vintage early 1980s New York musical milieu; a fascinating snapshot of the point at which the 1970s punk movement had opened up and embraced other types of music, including disco, ska, and early hip hop typified by NY bands like Blondie and Hell's own band The Voivods. Although the film resembles other feminist punk rock movies of the early 1980s -- Allan Moyle's Times Square and the legendary, rarely seen Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains -- Smithereens differs in its faithful portrayal of the scene, beginning with an excellent, bittersweet score by The Feelies and songs by The Voivods and electro-clash heroes ESG. The film's rock club segments, shot at the appropriately grungy The Peppermint Lounge, also have a startlingly authentic feel, giving Smithereens the feel of a fictional story grafted onto a documentary-like look at the post-punk movement. As a result, this film is more akin to the pioneering New York City hip hop film Wild Style, which also captures a burgeoning musical scene prior to being co-opted by commercial interests.
Stripped away of its new wave accoutrements, Smithereens is still interesting, though, a neat feminist inversion of the classic teen love formula. Instead of telling the story of a guy who pines after a beautiful cheerleader while ignoring the demure gal pal that obviously lusts after him, Wren only spends time with "guy next door" Paul when she's kicked out of her apartment and systematically outworn her welcome with everyone else. Paul, of course, is smitten, but when Eric makes the scene, Wren's repeated and opportunistic attempts to force herself into the rock star life has Paul frustrated and threatening to move out west. Instead running on autopilot, though, Nyswaner and Seidelman give the familiar plot enough twists and turns to keep things interesting and fresh.
Susan Berman makes the most of the almost thankless role of Wren, and manages to give this brash, self-centered character an underlying vulnerability that holds the film together nicely. As the lead guitarist and singer of a New York punk band, Richard Hell is essentially playing himself, and although less convincing than he probably should be, he does a decent job. The third side of this love triangle is the weakest -- Brad Rijn's portrayal of Paul is rather one-dimensional, and it never becomes clear what he hopes Wren might see in him. It's also worth noting that Smithereens contains a brief movie-within-a-movie, an interesting horror take-off directed by and starring then-budding special effects man Ed French (C.H.U.D.) along with John Waters regular Cookie Mueller. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot Chris Noth (Sex and the City) as a transvestite hooker (!).
Not surprising for a twenty-year old indie production blown up to 35mm, grain and detail levels vary significantly throughout this transfer. The film comes off a shade soft, with subdued colors, but again, that's really to be expected. Blue Underground has done a nice job getting the soundtrack in shape though, which sounds better than it has any right to. Smithereens is not a film that's entirely suited to a 5.1 remix, but the one included here sounds pretty good, considering there aren't many opportunities for atmospheric or directional effects. Still, dialogue is always decipherable, and the exceptional soundtrack is fairly rich.
A fine commentary with David Gregory interviewing Susan Seidelman kicks off Blue Underground's short but sweet collection of extras. Gregory does his usual great job at drawing out anecdotes, but Seidelman is pretty talkative on her own, and he is content to just prod her through the few quiet spots. She describes the way the film came about, offers stories about the cast and crew and talks a little bit about the cloistered East Village scene that the film grew out of. Susan Berman and Richard Hell are interviewed tag-team style on "Desperately Seeking Susan and Richard," a featurette that clocks in at just over 10 minutes. Both talk about how they got involved in the film, what it was like working on an independent film, and their feelings about the final product. Berman still looks great, but Hell is a little worse-for-wear these days, although he seems fond of the project. Their memories are a nice counterpart to Seidelman's, even if they don't always agree on the fine details. Finishing of the supplementary features are a still gallery of film and promotional materials, and a theatrical trailer.
Although the less than perfect presentation serves as a constant reminder of the film's low budget roots, it's actually quite appropriate for this breakthrough independent effort. Smithereens is not only a chance to check out an early effort by future stars Seidelman and Nyswaner, but also to see a movie that helped independent films gain the unique level of respect they currently enjoy. Recommended for music and film fans alike.
Not guilty: it's got a beat, and you can dance to it.
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with Susan Seidelman
* Interview with Susan Berman and Richard Hell
* Theatrical Trailer
* Poster and Still Gallery