Overlooked Gems: Summer of Sam (1999)
After giving some focus to Halloween centric films in October and before the Christmas season rush, I’ve decided to break tradition slightly with this recommendation. Usually, I try to select films which are easy to find on digital or tangible forms of the media. However, a recent conversation made me realize that an opportunity like this one is worth spending a little time commenting on movies worth the hunt and are deserving of a new release. And with that in mind, the first of these hard to find recommendations (I promise they’ll be rare) is the disturbing but brilliant Spike Lee Joint Summer of Sam.
It’s almost mind-blowing to think that there are Spike Lee films which you really can’t find in stores today, considering the loyal fandom devoted to the director. But Summer of Sam is almost completely forgotten less than 15 years after it’s initial release, because it split critics and wasn’t a hit at the box-office. But like a throwback to his early films, such as School Daze and Do the Right Thing, the fractured, chaotic, high tension cinematic style which is a hallmark of Lee’s early work is alive and well in this 70s period film about the neighborhood terrified by the Son of Sam murders.
As odd as it may sound, Spike Lee’s big ensemble films have a similarity to the films of Robert Altman, using the collection of characters to create their own microcosm and throwing a commentary on society back to the audience. And like Altman, there is an aggressiveness in most of Lee’s film which can be as repulsive as it is appealing. Summer of Sam is absolutely this type of film, from the exploitative full frontal nudity, to drug use, graphic violence, and vulgarity (according to one piece of trivia there is over 430 uses of the F-word in the film). But despite, or perhaps because of all this, it’s impossible not to have a visceral reaction to the film while watching, which engages you (even while making you a bit crazy) and makes you want to discuss with friends the bigger themes of the film.
Despite the name, Summer of Sam is neither about David Berkowitz, nor the investigation of the Son of Sam. It is about a neighborhood where murders took place, and the danger, panic, paranoia, and suspicion which can destroy it. Specifically, the film focuses on four 20 somethings, hairdresser Vinny (John Leguizamo), his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino), his best friend Richie (Adrien Brody), and his new girlfriend Ruby (Jennifer Esposito). Circling them are the boys from the neighborhood (Michael Rispoli, Saverio Guerra, Brian Tarantina, Al Palagonia, and Ken Garito), and veteran character actors such as Patti LuPone, Mike Starr, John Savage, Anthony LaPaglia, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ben Gazzara, Michael Badalucco, and Michael Imperioli, who also cowrote the movie with Lee and rightly gave himself one of the most colorful roles in the film. At the heart of the film is Vinny and Richie’s lifelong friendship, as two boys from the neighborhood. While Vinny stayed and became just one of the guys who embraced the Disco scene, Richie left home and found the punk scene, only to return as someone strange, and therefore threatening.
Summer of Sam features four of the best lead performances captured on screen in the 1990s, with Leguizamo, Brody, Sorvino, and Esposito each giving dynamite performances, at times big and brash, and other moments subtle and intimate. The scene of Esposito and Sorvino discussing their sex lives on a double date is arguably the best scene between women ever captured in a Spike Lee film, and the diner scene with Brody and Leguizamo when Richie is asked to leave, shows why Brody would go on to become the youngest best actor winner in Oscar history three years later. Even his biggest performances have a humanity behind them, which allow him to go in every different direction, from very funny (there is a scene with his parents which is absolutely hilarious) to sad and soulful.
Sorvino’s Dionna evolves from passive arm candy to independent woman in the course of the film, and is the definition of seeing an actress going for broke in a film, letting every bit of fragility shine through. If Brody and Sorvino are the two standouts, its only because they are paired with subtler Leguizamo and Esposito, who each play quite outsiders who find their place…such as when Vinny rejects the boys and Esposito whispers to Brody that she wants to ditch the Disco scene, which is it’s self a heartbreaking peek into a life that never allows someone to start over. And it would be hard to find a performance which could be seen as weak in the film, especially the way every single person seems to fit their roles, which each seem to have a life in this neighborhood all there own which we could easily follow.
And all the while, Spike Lee garnishes the cinematic elements of his very intimate, human story with almost absurdist elements. The on screen violence showing Son of Sam killings is always jarring, especially when cut between Disco dances. From the opening disco scene to the music montage halfway through to capture the panic in the streets, the movie even finds two of the best uses for what are arguably the best known and over used songs by The Who. In fact, the entire Summer of Sam soundtrack is aggressive, and may be the reason the film is so hard to find in stores. And rather than focus on period detail, Lee abandons focusing on the historical accuracy of the film and makes it a timeless allegory.
Which is the reason I think Summer of Sam isn’t just good film but an important movie. It was made in the spirit of The Crucible, Twilight Zone’s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” John Carpenter’s The Thing or Night of the Living Dead. The movie is about paranoia and fear, and how they are powerful ingredients which can lead to dangerous mass hysteria. And similar to the way Lee showed tensions rise in Do the Right Thing to levels which seem impossible, the place Summer of Sam ends up is hard to believe considering how the film began. But after watching the film, it may still be a shocking conclusion, but sadly, it isn’t hard to imagine these events could happen when tensions are this high and paranoia and suspicion is running unchecked. It serves as a necessary warning which seems to have been made a few years ahead of its time.
So go to your public library and find a copy of the film on DVD if you can. And hopeful we’ll one day see Summer of Sam get a re-release. But viewer beware, it more than earns it’s hard R rating.
Watch the Summer of Sam Trailer