Vintage Cable Box: “Eddie And The Cruisers, 1983”

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“They’ll find a way to screw us, they always do. Guys like you and me, they strike oil under your garden and all you get is dead tomatoes.”

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Eddie And The Cruisers, 1983 (Tom Berenger), Embassy Pictures

We start off with a live, rousing Springsteen-esque anthem, “On The Darkside”. Sultry rock journalist Ellen Barkin gives us the exposition. They were the biggest, baddest band in the land! Eddie and The Cruisers! Barkin wants to write a story based on her wild theory that Eddie is still alive. His car went off a bridge one night when the band was in free-fall after recording a concept album called A Season In Hell; a follow-up to their successful debut. The label refused to release the album and dropped the band. Barkin wants to find the tapes that went missing a day after Eddie’s disappearance.

Keyboardist Tom Berenger (affectionately known as “Word Man”) teaches high school literature. While a fulfilling job, it doesn’t hold a candle to those lost nights of his youth performing with the band. He flashes back to the Jersey Shore, 1962, where he first encounters hot backing vocalist Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider), boyfriend and front-man Eddie Wilson (Michael Paré), douchebag bass player Sal Amato (Matthew Laurance), and the rest, including a drug-addicted saxophonist, and a frenetic personal manager named “Doc” (Joe Pantoliano). Impressed with Berenger’s musical acumen, Eddie asks him to join the band.

Barkin dogs Berenger for her story (pun!). She wants to know what happened that fateful night of Eddie’s disappearance. Berenger returns to his trailer home to find the place has been ransacked. Obviously somebody’s looking for those tapes. He hooks up with “Doc”, now working as a disc jockey spinning oldies but goodies. He wants the tapes so he can get a cut of the loot from sales and promotion, and he wants to bring the group back together, but Berenger ain’t buying what “Doc” is selling.

Berenger seems to be taking a trip through his past, touching base with “Doc”, Sal (who has revived the act with an impostor Eddie), and finally, Joann, with whom he consummates their long-standing mutual infatuation. In a particularly charming scene that traces the evolution of their hit song, “On The Darkside” from a simple keyboard riff to a fully-realized and produced pop song, Berenger listens to Sal’s revival and can only bemoan the lack of charisma and energy. Flashing back to the past, Berenger remembers the band’s initial success. “Wild Summer Nights” and “Tender Years” become big hits.

Things take an inevitable down-turn.  Eddie spies “Word Man” and Joann getting friendly, which causes a rift in their relationship.  Wendell, the saxophonist, drops dead of a drug overdose, and the band is in ruins.  Back in the present, Joann tells “Word Man” she keeps getting strange phone calls, and her place is also ransacked.  She tells him about the last night she spent with Eddie after the acrimony at the studio in the wake of A Season In Hell.  He takes her to a bizarre junkyard museum.  Joann tells him she took the tapes and hid them in the museum.  Together, they retrieve the tapes, but somebody’s been watching them this whole time.  Is it Eddie?

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Eddie And The Cruisers is a fast-paced rock n’ roll mystery movie. It’s a movie I watched constantly on cable. While given a small release in theaters, all but forgotten, the film became enormously popular on cable television. In fact, the success of the movie played in constant cable rotation inspired a sequel, Eddie Lives in 1989. As Eddie, Michael Paré is a charismatic and good-looking front-man. He almost made me believe he was truly singing the John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band signature tunes that energize this movie’s soundtrack.

Martin Davidson directs (from a script he wrote with Arlene Davidson) with a sure hand and a love of music and music lore. Frequent collaborator Joseph Brooks produced the movie. Brooks also wrote the nausea-inducing, “You Light Up My Life”, and was charged with sexually assaulting eleven woman in his East Side apartment between 2005 and 2008. He committed suicide in 2011. His son, Nicholas, was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder of his girlfriend, Sylvie Cachay in 2011. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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VINTAGE CABLE BOX: “The Big Chill”, 1983

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“Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.”

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The Big Chill , 1983 (Kevin Kline), Columbia Pictures

It’s bizarre and more than a little morose when I think about the fact that I am older than the central characters in Lawrence Kasdan’s classic coming-to-terms-with-things epic, The Big Chill. All in their mid-thirties, more than a few of them established and respected pillars of their respective communities (except rebel-boy Nick), they reunite for the weekend in South Carolina after the suicide of their friend, Alex (Kevin Costner, not appearing in this film). Kasdan made a name for himself, penning screenplays like The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. His first film as director was the brilliant film-noir spoof, Body Heat starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner.

The Big Chill is a movie that resonates with a different age group – that of our parents, the “Baby-Boomers”, children of the war and the “Greatest Generation”; those who turned their backs on what they perceived was a mindless emphasis on patriotism, imperialism, and consumerism (lots of -isms). As they grew into adulthood, they chose an uncomplicated path to self-destruction through drugs and the concept of free-love because they saw those same failings in themselves. A good portion of The Big Chill fixates on this idea. This is where my conflict comes in. I’m the product of a lost generation: the children of the “boomers” who don’t relate to these internalized conflicts, because we’ve nurtured apathy and despair and saw the hypocrisy in our parents long before they did. I’m sorry, this is getting preachy.

The cast of this movie is exceptional. Kevin Kline is Harold, a successful businessman. Glenn Close is his long-suffering wife, Sarah (who once had an affair with Alex). Handsome Tom Berenger is Sam, a television star. JoBeth Williams is bored housewife, Karen. William Hurt is the aforementioned rebel-boy, Nick. Jeff Goldblum is Michael, a writer for People magazine (who once published a hatchet-job on Sam), obviously a stand-in for Kasdan. Mary Kay Place is a successful attorney, unlucky in love. Meg Tilly is Alex’s much-younger girlfriend, Chloe. Shot in a real house in Beaufort, the cast lived together for several weeks before shooting commenced, which explains their unbelievably easy chemistry and mutual affection.

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Kline and Hurt’s characters are disillusioned in their adulthood. Berenger is clingy after his recent divorce. Goldblum is looking to scam his friends out of money so he can open a nightclub. Mary Kay Place wants to have a baby. JoBeth secretly loves Berenger and wants out of her dead-end marriage to boring, dependable Richard. Glenn Close is the emotional center of the group, weeping for Alex. Meg Tilly’s Chloe is the innocent; blissfully ignorant of the group’s woe.

Because these characters tend to run together with their fears and motivations, Chloe is the one truly unique person under this roof. She is sensitive and idealistic, but also lazy and giggly. Chloe is a part of her own lost generation, not quite old enough and not quite young enough. It’s only logical she connects the most with Hurt’s disaffected Nick, because he seems to be closest analog to the mysterious Alex. Alex is another matter entirely. Completely missing (even in spirit) from the film, he appears to be the glue that held this little community together, and without his gentle sway, everything falls apart.

It’s interesting in that I was eleven years old watching this movie (this is a movie explicitly not made for me) for the first time with my mother, who laughed at every joke, and cried at every somber moment, instantly identifying with these characters. The reason I enjoyed the movie had more to do with the very witty dialogue and what’s more, I appreciated the friendships, the connections, and the warmth of the performances. When I watch the movie now, I still think I’m a kid and couldn’t possibly understand the dilemmas of The Big Chill even though I’m much older than I’m younger than that now.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.