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"Johnny Suede" is not a film for all tastes. Not because it's a very
strange piece, but because it's not an example of that in-your-face cinema
that many are accustomed to. This is Tom DiCillo's directorial debut. I
saw one of his recent films, "The Real Blonde," and I found it to be very
impressive. So I felt quite curious about checking out his early work.
There's not even a hint of flashy direction, and it's obvious throughout
that the makers of the film were running on a low budget, but I didn't worry
about those things.
Brad Pitt (before he became a household name) is great--and perfectly cast--in the lead role. Next to his role as Tyler Durden in "Fight Club" I would say this is one of the best performances of his career. I just felt, in every aspect, he was made to play this character. Even the pompadour looked perfect on him, and I couldn't imagine any other actor wearing it better. His character, Johnny Suede, is so utterly likable that you feel obligated to scurry along on his little journeys. Johnny is not the smartest guy on Earth, not the classiest either and certainly not the most successful. He lives a pretty simple life in a ratty apartment, listening to vintage records by rock and roll legends. He has dreams of becoming a rock and roll legend himself, and is the leader of a band. However, the band never quite takes off. None of that "I dream of becoming a rock and roll star and the next minute I'm staring at crowds of screaming fans chanting my name" garbage we see repeatedly on VH1 as one of the "Movies That Rock." This is the life of a real struggling artist, who does have talent and potential, but can't quite get off the ground. Well...not yet. His love life isn't all too successful, and that's what's hindering his ability to proceed in his daily endeavors. First he falls in love with a beautiful girl whose current boyfriend likes to beat her. He has every right to believe that the sparks are flying between them, but suddenly she just blurts out, "I don't love you, Johnny." Then he falls in love with Catherine Keener. Things go well between them at first, but like in his previous relationships things also get shot to hell eventually. And we feel sorry for this poor guy. He may not be smooth or unusually charming, but that's the point. He's a nice, unpretentious average Joe who seeks true love and quite frankly he's doing everything in his power to make these relationships work. I've always admired Brad (A.K.A. Mr. Handsome), but I considered this performance especially unique. Though he's just as handsome as he was in "Legends of the Fall" and "Meet Joe Black," he's not on screen to portray his now-proclaimed status as the "Sexiest Man Alive." He just plays a normal guy, living a normal life and seeking a normal relationship. Though we may not all go for the "pompadour" look or listen to classic oldies on an old record player, we can all relate to his character in some sort of way. And speaking of music, I love that line where he says, "Real music has no time." When you listen to great songs by great artists like Bill Haley and the Comets or Ricky Nelson, you don't think about what time period they came from because they're timeless. At first, I thought this movie might've been set in the 1950's, but in all actuality it just involves a man who happens to be fascinated by the trends of the 50's, and I'm down with that.
Don't expect a plot, because this is strictly a character-driven effort. And with a strong central character like Johnny Suede, I felt amazingly captivated and had an unspeakable urge to keep on watching. I guess you can call it a slice-of-life comedy-drama. I highly suggest people check out this overlooked gem. You'll laugh. You'll have fun. You'll have a good ol' time.
My score: 7 (out of 10)
This movie really comes out of nowhere, and stays fresh and intriguing from
the first shot to the last. I couldn't stop smiling for a moment, it was so
The story centers around a pair of snazzy shoes, that are found by Pitt's character Johnny, then change his entire life. There isn't a great deal of plot, which is fine, because the story is driven by the bizarre people in Johnny's life, and the way in which he reacts to them.
The best thing about "Johnny Suede" is that you really don't know what people are going to say or do next. The most 'normal' person in the story is Keener's character, who is strange just for liking Johnny so much.
The photography and sound is fairly minimal, due to budget, but in a way, it really adds to the ambience of nothingness in Johnny's life. The directing of actors is really first-rate, and the script is a gem. Oh, and the hair is a must-see.
If you're in the market for something out of left-field, then this hits the spot!
Johnny Suede is like underground-filmmaking lite. It comes almost
around the end of that era of New York City filmmaking that started
many years before with more radical types like Andy Warhol and Jack
Smith, and continued on with Jim Jarmusch (whom director Tom DiCillo
worked for at one time), Betty Gordon and the guys that made New York
Beat Movie. It's something about the beat of the street that DiCillo is
interested in, at least in some part. But at the same time his lead
figure is played by Brad Pitt, and it's like the slightly dim-witted
rockabilly version of Henry from Eraserhead. It's nowhere near as
bizarro as that, but DiCillo does try to be sure. He even has his
intrepid would-be lady's man walking around a downtown NYC that looks
as run-down as could be at the time, right before the city got a little
more gentrified. It's a place with oddball rock n' rollers and street
bums, midgets and painters, and oddball types of other varieties.
If it isn't entirely great it's because the film inhabits a strange region where it's not entirely underground, and could never be something mainstream despite its young star (who had just finished being female eye-candy in Thelma & Louise). Pitt is very good in the role though, taking up a character who isn't quite as stupid as he looks, but not intelligent enough to live in the "real" world. He's more into being a kind of hunky rockabilly guy, Ricky Nelson his idol, his huge pompadour the envy of anyone except for Nick Cave's character Freak Storm, also with an impressive head of hair. Like a real 'indie' movie there isn't too much of a plot: Suede gets a pair of shoes that kind of define him, tries to make a band that doesn't work out, paints to make ends meet, falls in love with one girl who dumps him for another and dates another (Catherine Keener) whom loves him dearly but who he treats badly.
What we have then is a movie without much of a story, and without much of a character that is iconic in ways that these indie films need to be. So why praise it so? Because of DiCillo's vision, and because Pitt does give the character what he needs as far as being real and raw enough to be taken seriously. He's a lunkhead, but not a bad person, kind of innocent and at his most vulnerable like a little puppy who needs help finding a woman's privates. It's a heady mix of grungy romance and some delirious dreams, some more touching than others. It could even be considered like a more "conventional" cousin to Eraserhead, where dreams and reality sometimes are indistinguishable to its protagonist, and whose direction in love and life is uncertain. If it's a little too light in the loafers to be fully embraced it may be expected as a first feature.
It's a fine jumping-off pad artistically for both its director (later to do the great Living in Oblivion) and of course its star, not to mention a very beautiful Catherine Keener and a perfectly weird Nick Cave.
It's very refreshing to see a quietly offbeat indy flick that isn't tripping over itself trying to be odd. This movie is a bit ragged around the edges, but rather then detract, this actually lends an enduring quality. Great acting throughout and the songs are funny and inspired, hitting just the right note of naiveté. You've got to love a guy who won't have a" band with no Bass", and it's got Tina Louise to boot! An all around great movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There is something about this movie that is enjoyable and from time to
time a movie such as Johnny Suede can be more appealing than a smash
hit at the box office.
Movies that depict a certain character and their surroundings I find very appealing and even if there isn't much of a story you can still appreciate the idea of the director.
Just like a number of other movies Johnny Suede is known for it's characters before they were famous - Brad Pitt, Samuel L Jackson and Catherine Keener. Brad Pitt delivered a great performance as a young and inspiring musician. Calvin Levels as Deke and Nick Cave added to Brad Pitt's character as people he met along the way in his journey and of course the girls he dated played by Catherine Keener and Alison Moir.
Toward's the end of the movie you will be wondering where this is all heading and during the end credits you will probably still be wondering the same, but I guess that can only be answered by the director.
Anyway, Johhny Suede I found enjoyable based on the story being unique and one of it's kind.
Big hair-pieced Brad Pitt (as Johnny Suede) moves to a large American
city, from North Dakota; he wants to become a Big pop music star. He
has everything except "Black Suede Shoes". One evening, he discovers a
woman being roughed up in an alley/alcove. While in a nearby phone
booth, calling for help, Pitt is practically hit over the head with his
blessed "Black Suede Shoes". Then, he feels he is on his way. Pitt is
hampered by an underwhelming singing voice, and poor material; but, due
to his muscular good looks, he is successful with women. Pitt has
several sexy underwear scenes; and, he slips under the sheets with
quirky Catherine Keener (as Yvonne) and alluring Alison Moir (as
Pitt idolizes Ricky Nelson (who certainly would have gotten a *kick* out of this movie). For the record, the most frequently played song, Rick Nelson's "Teen Age Idol" could not have been turned over to play "Travelin' Man", as Pitt does in an effective scene with Ms. Moir. The two Nelson hits were on different Imperial singles. The record album hanging on Pitt's apartment wall is the excellent "Ricky Sings Again" album. "Midtown" is the best of the "original" tunes; it has some of the breezy feel evident in Nelson's early Decca material.
Moir, Ms. Keener, and Calvin Levels (as Deke) perform very well. Keener won an "Independent Spirit Award"; but, Moir and Mr. Leeds are also very impressive. Tempting Tina Louise (as Mrs. Fontaine), from "Gilligan's Island", has a leggy cameo; and, Nick Cave is a "Freak Storm". Debuting director Tom DiCillo's "Johnny Suede" is filled with style and good intentions.
****** Johnny Suede (1991) Tom DiCillo ~ Brad Pitt, Catherine Keener, Calvin Levels
Independent filmmaker Tom DiCillo made his debut here with this hip, refreshingly quirky character study, with Brad Pitt scoring as the central character. He plays Johnny Suede, aspiring musician who idolizes Ricky Nelson and occupies a fairly run down apartment in Brooklyn. The film follows Johnny around as he alternates between reality and his own dream world. His relationships with women are a focal point, first as he hooks up with Darlette (Alison Moir) whose mom (Tina Louise) has connections to the music business. Then he chances to meet schoolteacher Yvonne (Catherine Keener) and falls for her hard enough to be ready to make some changes in his life. DiCillo injects some moments of amusing surrealism into his film while still basically handling his material in a straightforward manner, never going for stylistic choices when it isn't necessary. The dialogue is sometimes quite funny, and really comes to life in the hands of these talented actors. Among the other people in Johnny's offbeat life are his friend and bandmate Deke (Calvin Levels); Samuel L. Jackson has a brief, one scene part as the bass player in his band. The brightest moments belong to real-life music star Nick Cave, playing a character named Freak Storm; his scenes with Pitt are fun. DiCillo does a good job with visual detail, right down to the clothes that his characters wear. The story, as has been pointed out, is about so much more than just a specific kind of music (although the music is wonderful throughout) - it goes to great lengths to depict this amiable, ordinary guy struggling not just to make it as a musician but to adjust to the highs and lows of everyday life. Pitt shows here, as he has on so many occasions, to be more than just a pretty face, and an actor of range and depth. You like Johnny and want to see him find happiness. And at the end you can't help but sympathize with him. Overall, this is an endearing little gem, one in which DiCillo refrains from giving in to predictability and finds a realistic centre amid the more offbeat aspects to the world he creates. Well worth a look. Eight out of 10.
JOHNNY SUEDE is a very early role for Brad Pitt (he had just finished THELMA AND LOUSIE). yet he delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as a clueless and childlike hipster. Many films of this nature boast a character who is in love with his own hipness, and delights in educating his contemporaries to this fact. Nothing can be farther from this than Pitt's take on Johnny. His reading of the character is so hesitant and tentative, as to be almost "challenged". Catherine Keener's character (who is introduced much too late in the film) becomes the driving force in the film, and attempts to show this carefully coiffed dandy what it might mean to be a man. A proper release of the film was held up because backers weren't sure his performance would connect with fans who were expecting a more polished Hollywood Heart Throb. Quirky and Mind-bending indeed. Excellent Commentary by Tom DiCillo.
Several years before his roles as the leader of a fight club, a
backwards-aging man, and a Nazi-slaughtering redneck, Brad Pitt played
the title role in Tom DiCillo's "Johnny Suede". Johnny is man on skid
row with ambitions to be the next Ricky Nelson. He already has a band,
and even starts up a relationship with young Darlette (Alison Moir).
But as his music career goes nowhere, she leaves him. Upon meeting the
offbeat Yvonne (Catherine Keener), Johnny starts to wonder if maybe
there's more to life than trying to be a rock star.
I didn't find this movie to be any sort of masterpiece, but I still thought that it was worth seeing. More than just an early vehicle for Pitt - sporting an absurdly large pompadour - and Keener, it shows Johnny's eventually having to recognize reality, especially given the world that he inhabits (the movie doesn't present a flattering look at Brooklyn).
There are also two supporting cast members playing roles totally the opposite of their most famous ones. Tina Louise, far removed from Ginger Grant, plays Darlette's manipulative mother. Samuel L. Jackson plays one of the band members. Ginger Grant co-starred with the guy who said "mother---king snakes on a mother---king plane" (although they don't share any scenes).
Anyway, I recommend "Johnny Suede". A look at lost dreams - much of the movie is in fact made to look dreamlike, probably stressing the contrast between Johnny's fantasies and reality - along with some very surprising stuff. Nick Cave appears as another man with a crazy hairdo. Tom DiCillo later directed "Living in Oblivion", starring Steve Buscemi as a man going through hell trying to make a movie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There is this continuous misuse of the word "comedy" as a substitute
for quirky, off-beat, different, strange, weird, etc. This is the case
The film is not funny. It is not a comedy in any way. Comedy means inducing laughter. There are very few laughs here, not because this film tries some jokes that fail to hit the mark - the film doesn't try because it's not a comedy.
The film is a light-hearted take on a wannabe rock star - his financial problems, love life, band issues and music career.
It attempts to be light-hearted but it is actually sad and depressing. Abject poverty, terrible, dirty apartments, hopeless music career, you name it.
The story itself isn't that interesting and the film is not really fun to watch.
It's really low-budget, apparently $500k, but I think they spent it all on celluloid and actor salaries, because it looks like it was filmed on a $5k budget.
The music is good, but it's not enough to save this dud of a film.
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