Eddie And The Cruisers/Eddie And The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!

In 1963, Eddie Wilson and his backing band, The Cruisers, had the number one song in America.  Just a year later, he disappeared without a trace.

In 1983, a TV journalist starts contacting the surviving members for an anniversary report on her show, Media Magazine.  20 years after The Dark Side topped the charts, the absence of Eddie is felt stronger than ever.

Eddie And The Cruisers are not a real band but a fine fictional one first conjured up by novelist P.F. Kluge and then adapted for the screen by Martin & Arlene Davidson.  (They co-wrote the screenplay, she executive produced and he directed.)  The charismatically brooding Michael Pare plays Eddie as a likeable, loyal yet ruthlessly ambitious rocker with strong Springsteenian vocals.  (John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band provided the original tunes.)

After the rejection of The Cruisers’ experimental second LP, A Season In Hell (inspired by the famous poet Arthur Rimbaud who heavily influenced Patti Smith), Eddie takes off in his beautiful red convertible and is never seen again.  His car is found dangling perilously over the edge of a bridge.  No body was ever recovered.

It’s that lack of finality that lingers depressingly in the minds and hearts of the remaining Cruisers two decades later.  Despite trying to get on with their lives, they remain married to their happier past.  The lack of true closure cuts deep.  Lingering wounds still won’t heal.

Tom Berenger plays Frank, the affable former keyboardist who turned Eddie onto Rimbaud and fell for his feminist back-up singer/girlfriend Joann (Helen Schneider) which causes temporary tension but not expulsion.  The Wordman’s lyrics are needed too much.

Frank’s now a popular English high school teacher who shares his love of poetry and Joann sings in Vegas.  When they eventually reconnect all these years later, the chemistry is still there.  Buried desire won’t die.

Meanwhile, Sally (Matthew Laurence), the stubborn bassist who we also like, has assembled his own nostalgic version of the Cruisers complete with an Eddie soundalike.  They’re good but it’s not the same without the original frontman.  They play the way he wants, rather than Eddie’s approach, to appreciative boomer crowds in hotel restaurants.  (They can’t let go of the past, either.)  Doc (Joe Pantoliano), the band’s former manager, is an impatient oldies DJ.

After Berenger’s trailer home is ransacked (other former band members subsequently experience the same thing), he gets a call from Doc.  While visiting him at his radio station, he learns that the master tapes of A Season In Hell, the rejected second album that Satin Records wouldn’t release, are missing.  Plus, he heard there might be a movie in the works.  Maybe they’ll get hired as consultants.

At the same time, Maggie (Ellen Barkin), the curious TV journalist from Media Magazine, tracks down the surviving Cruisers one by one for interviews.  Only Frank is initially reluctant.  But inevitably, he opens up, too.

In between the effective modern-day scenes where the conflicted band members reestablish contact and Frank reminisces about their heyday with the sympathetic reporter, we get sharply observed flashback sequences that reveal key moments in The Cruisers’ timeline.  Frank’s introduction to the band before one of their early pre-stardom gigs.  His ill-fated romance with Joann (he also turned her on to Rimbaud).  Eddie teaching a pitchy Frank how to rock out on the keys while working on The Dark Side.  The tragic death of their sax player Wendell (Michael “Tunes” Antunes).  And the fateful moment when a cruel dismissal leads to an impulsive ride.

Critics weren’t too thrilled with Eddie And The Cruisers during its lacklustre theatrical run.  The film didn’t find an audience until 1984 when it hit home video and HBO started airing the film relentlessly.  As a result, The Dark Side, which peaked on the real Billboard Hot 100 in the mid-60s during its first release, ended up in the Top 10 in its second.  (It was the number one Album Rock Track for five consecutive weeks, as noted by Wikipedia.)  Another song, Tender Hearts (also the name of the fictional band’s hit first album but also a John Cafferty original from 1980), eventually hit the Top 40.  The soundtrack has since sold three million copies.

That’s as close to self-actualization as this movie will ever get.

Despite being a work of fiction, Eddie And The Cruisers are a credible band with a number of entertaining songs that pass a key test:  they hold up on repeat listens.  I like the way the film is structured, as well.  We don’t get the full faux-historical details in those flashbacks, just important snippets which preserves the mystique of the band, most especially Eddie Wilson, who is correctly positioned as a supporting player, rather than the lead.  When he talks about his hopes for the band’s music, it’s smart, endearing and believable.  He wants to be one of the greats even if his bandmates don’t believe they can live up to that perhaps impossible ideal.  We only get a taste of the Season In Hell album but the one song we do hear is as good as any of their previous cuts even though nothing quite tops The Dark Side.

I also like watching how the dynamics of the band play out.  Witnessing the members argue over whether to use dramatic pauses in the vocals to add more tension and seeing them pep up Frank’s much slower version of The Dark Side is fun and insightful.  It makes you appreciate how difficult it is to produce something everyone can live with that can somehow attract mass appeal.

I’m not sure the money-conscious weasels at Satin Records, the mostly unseen villains of this story, would keep A Season In Hell under lock and key for 20 years long after Eddie’s disappearance.  Why wouldn’t they have tried to shamelessly cash in right away?  Nevertheless, once we find out who has the tapes and who else has been trying to secure them, we understand both their motives.  It makes sense.  The past can become the present again.

Which brings us to the controversial ending.  As Maggie’s report wraps up on TV, there he is, the mystery man in disguise watching himself in his prime.  No one notices him, especially when he walks away with a knowing smile on his face.  Personally, I like the ending.  It’s jolting.  And let’s be clear about one thing.  It’s not a cheat.

Eddie And The Cruisers is about the difficulty of divorcing yourself from your greatest period because you never wanted it to end.  Notice how all the surviving characters struggle with this, even the enigmatic singer at the heart of this story.  The music they created together in the 60s is so embedded into their DNA they can’t escape it.  The past defines their present more than anything else.  All of their current jobs keep them deeply connected to their firmly planted roots.

All throughout the film, there is considerable doubt about the fate of Eddie Wilson.  The lack of a body, the intuitive sense that he never really left.  So when we suddenly see his reflection on that TV screen, it’s not as though we weren’t warned.

Because he didn’t truly die, six years later, we get the highly deflating Eddie And The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!, which is a bit of a misleading title.  (We’ll get to why later.)  Pare returns as Wilson, now a construction worker named Joe West who somehow resides in Quebec.  (The movie was made by French Canadians.)  During a coffee break with a couple of co-workers in a local pub, he is transfixed by his old image on TV as Martha Quinn talks up his most famous song, then plugs an upcoming lookalike contest featuring contestants who look nothing like the real thing.  (Maybe that was the point.)

The Tender Hearts album has been rereleased and has gone platinum in a month, which is remarkable considering what was actually popular in 1984 (Van Halen, The Police, Michael Jackson), the year this movie is set.  It’s also a wink and a nod to the belated success of the original Eddie And The Cruisers soundtrack.

Wilson drives back across the border to check out the show without anyone noticing his presence, which seems hard to believe considering his less than brilliant disguise.  (Someone on the Internet later wrote that he looks like a longhaired Robert Goulet.)  He starts getting emotional as the crowd repeatedly chants “Eddie!  Eddie!” and we think for a moment he might out himself.  But he doesn’t.  This eventually establishes one of the fundamental problems with the movie.  His constant second guessing about his inevitable return to the spotlight.  (We learn early on that he never stopped writing songs, pages of which he later tries to burn to no success.  He has bad aim.)

Back in Montreal, while attending a Habs playoff game, he encounters aspiring artist Diane (Marina Orsini) who wants to paint him.  He’s not interested.  Their eventual, predictable romance has zero heat and ultimately becomes a major distraction.

While in another bar one night, Wilson checks out an uneven local band led by Colin James doppelganger Rick Diesel (Bernie Coulsen).  He befriends their sax player Hilton (Anthony Sherwood) who he once saw playing with Ike & Tina Turner and is later challenged by a skeptical Diesel to shred with his band.  In the middle of jamming, Wilson suddenly bolts during Hilton’s improvised solo.  Now thoroughly convinced of his skill (but strangely unaware of who he really is), Diesel seeks him out and eventually convinces him to critique his soloing on a lousy song he’s written.  Wilson complains that he isn’t letting the music breathe.  But when he tries his own solo, honestly it doesn’t improve the song at all.  It’s clear Diesel is too Eddie Van Halen for Wilson’s liking.  He’d rather he play more economically like The Edge.  Personally, I’d rather hear The Dark Side again.

Here’s a depressing observation.  Eddie Wilson in Eddie Lives! is just not a likeable character anymore.  He’s irritable, irrational, contradictory, needlessly jealous and out of touch with modern music.  Not only that, he stalls too much and is annoyingly indecisive.  He bluntly tells Diesel to quit his band only to help him form a crappy new one.  (In a thankless role, Platinum Blonde’s Mark Holmes becomes their new bassist.)  The material they generate is not fresh or innovative.  In fact, it sounds more like New Country, especially in the final concert scene when this new group, Rock Solid, opens some Quebec music festival with their grooveless stinkbombs.

Calling this Eddie And The Cruisers II is a bit fraudulent since the film isn’t about a long awaited reunion.  (Sally is the only Cruiser who returns from the original.)  It’s really a reluctant attempt at a second act with a different set of musicians.  (We really don’t care about their struggle to make it.)  The problem is that Wilson has to be dragged kicking and screaming back into the public eye even though this is what he really wants!  There really is no reason for him to act this way other than to draw out some contrived tension and create some kind of artificial suspense.  I mean do we really think he’s going to pull another disappearing act in the finale?  Please.

Satin Records, the label that refused to release A Season In Hell in 1964, finally does so to great success (come on) and also starts playing new unreleased Eddie Wilson singles that don’t feature The Cruisers and are instantly forgettable.  (There is no way any of them would be hits.)  Hearing these songs triggers Wilson’s temper and plays into his insecurities.  The weaselly executives play up the possibility that Eddie didn’t die to increase sales not realizing of course that they’re right.  They keep upping a reward for anyone with proof that he didn’t drown in that river.  No one comes forward.  But a couple of kooky broads go on Larry King to claim he fathered their kids, one of a small number of unfunny references to the discredited “Elvis is alive” conspiracy.

Another big problem with the film is Wilson’s weak explanation for how he managed to survive that crash.  First he says he doesn’t remember much.  But then he says when he hit the water he thought about Wendell, The Cruisers sax player who died of a heroin overdose, and decided to keep swimming.  (All the way to Canada?)  While I can understand walking away because of screwy record label politics, I can’t sympathize with the way he abandoned his bandmates by faking his death.  Let’s face it.  He’s a despicable coward.

There’s a scene where he approaches Sally on the beach (when did he become a father?) looking like he did 20 years ago.  The former bassist (who apparently isn’t doing the nostalgia circuit anymore) is royally pissed.  But after a few “I’m sorrys”, they embrace and all is instantly forgiven.  Sally later sends him a brief supportive telegram before the festival gig.  How convenient.

Like its predecessor, Eddie And The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! was not loved during its 1989 theatrical run.  Unlike most critics in 1983, I’ll defend the original and its nervy ending.  I can’t defend this.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 27, 2017
3:07 p.m.

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Published in: on May 27, 2017 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

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