Johnny Suede

Johnny Suede, a 1991 indie comedy by writer/director Tom DiCillo, has just been re-released on DVD by Anchor Bay. It’s an uneven effort and will probably only appeal to huge Brad Pitt or Tom DiCillo fans. Soon after filming his breakthrough performance in Thelma and Louise, Brad Pitt got his first starring role in Johnny Suede, the writing/directing debut of Tom DiCillo. DiCillo had previously been best known as the cinematographer of many of Jim Jarmusch’s 1980s films (Permanent Vacation, Stranger than Paradise). Pitt plays the title character, a young musician whose vintage clothes and huge pompadour of a cool Ricky Nelson wannabe covers over a startling innocence and naiveté.

DiCillo notes in the commentary that he based the movie on a character he created while studying acting and performed several times in monologues at theaters. The movie does have the feeling of a bunch of strung together events rather than a cohesive story. It also comes across as being weird for weirdness’ sake. Johnny can’t just watch a cowboy movie; he has to watch a midget cowboy movie. Pitt does a good job portraying the innocent Johnny, although there are times when he comes across as more brain damaged than naïve. He lives in a bit of fantasy world, represented by a few stylish dream sequences, that contrast with the bombed out look of his neighborhood (unnamed, but clearly representing the outskirts of New York City.)

The main problem with the film is that it takes so long to really get going. The first fifty minutes establish Johnny as a performer, desiring to be noticed while living in a filthy tenement and working as a house painter with his musician buddy Deke (Calvin Levels, who is the best thing in this movie.) He meets Darlette (Alsion Moir), a party girl who easily manipulates Johnny with stories of an abusive boyfriend. Her mother (Tina Louise) runs a record company and the two play head games with Johnny. This all takes too long, features lots of arty shots and set-ups with no payoffs, and never really goes anywhere.

After being dumped by Darlette, Johnny meets the much more stable, but still quirky, Yvonne (Catherine Keener) and the movie hits its stride. It actually becomes funny and begins to make a little bit of sense. Johnny has to grow-up and realize that life is actually work, not just suede shoes and fantasy cool. Musician Nick Cave plays an amusing character named Freak Storm (remember, weirdness for weirdness sake) who represents where Johnny is headed if he continues on his current path.

Although the movie does pick-up once Keener shows up, it’s not quite enough. The first half (or more) is just too disjointed and uninteresting. Style over substance is the order of the day for a lot the film. You can see the appeal of the monologues that DiCillo based the movie on, but put together it just doesn’t quite work. The re-release of this movie is a bit of a head scratcher. I guess Pitt’s involvement would draw some fans. It’s more likely, however, that hard core DiCillo fans will want to see his first effort. The DVD case is a bit misleading, as it lists Samuel L. Jackson prominently. Jackson is in one scene as the bass player in Johnny’s band and has one line.

The film, according to DiCillo’s commentary, cost about $500,000 to shoot. It looks it. The quality of the print, or perhaps the original film, is not good and is very grainy to watch at times. The sound is also not so great and, along with Pitt’s half mumble talking style in this movie, it’s hard to pick up what Johnny is saying at times.

The DVD was also released with almost nothing in the way of extras. Other than the original trailer and a commentary track by DiCillo, the movie is the only thing on the disc. It’s understandable that a movie made more than 15 years ago for less than a million bucks wouldn’t have much in the way of extras, but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t suffer in comparison to other DVDs out there.

The commentary is surprisingly good. DiCillo keeps up a steady, interesting flow of information about himself and the character during the entire track. He doesn’t typically comment directly on the action, just telling the story of how the film got made and what he was trying to do with the character. He states at the beginning that he was recording the commentary in 2005. Either there is another DVD version of this movie out, or there was a big delay between when he recorded the commentary and the release of the DVD. Either way, it’s probably the most entertaining thing on the disc and doesn’t even really need to be part of the DVD. Just listening to it separate from the movie would work.

The pretty good commentary does not make up for all the other problems with this movie and disc. The poor quality of the transfer, the lack of anything interesting or funny going on for the first half of the film, and the absence of substantial extras add up to a pretty poor release. This was one movie that could have stayed in the “hard to find” pile.