Martin Davidson’s film about the disappearance of a fictional New Jersey rock singer initially flopped at the box office. It later became a “cult favorite” on cable television. Many film critics blame it on a two month holdup in its theatrical release. Instead of August, they contend, the film hit the multiplexes in October, long after high school and college students were already back in school. I don’t think I became aware of Eddie and the Cruisers until 1984. By that time we were already in the middle of the hype over Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour, and the very last thing I wanted to pay money to watch was a fictionalized movie about the same guy who was all over the media, and who I couldn’t have avoided if I had wanted to. When Walter Mondale came to Rutgers in May to campaign ahead of the New Jersey primary and quoted Born in the USA, I think I actually booed. Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bryan Adams, I was sick to death of the whole “roots rock” movement of the mid-1980s.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when upon finally watching Eddie and the Cruisers in 2016, I discover that it’s not only a good movie. It might even be a great movie. While Eddie Wilson bears more than a superficial resemblance to Bruce Springsteen – he’s a white ethnic guy from the Jersey Shore who plays in a band with a black saxophonist – he actually stands for something a bit more interesting, the Baby Boomer who didn’t sell out, the genuine rebel who chose to leave the music business rather than end up on MTV singing “We Built this City.” I doubt I missed very much not seeing Eddie and the Cruisers during its original theatrical release since the plot focuses on Eddie’s band mates, middle-aged losers in their late 30s and early 40s who spend most of the movie picking up the pieces of their lost youth, wondering why all their early promise disappeared so fast. It’s not the kind of film that will appeal to an 18-year-old, especially the 18-year-old I was in 1983, an early member of Generation X who was already sick of the Baby Boomers and their nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s. At age 50, I get it.
The narrative structure of Eddie and the Cruisers closely resembles Citizen Kane’s, or that of the Polish movie Man of Marble by Andrzej Wajda. It is 1982, and the single album by Eddie and the Cruisers, who had a number one hit song 20 years before, has been re-released. A journalist named Maggie Foley is assigned to write write a brief portrait of Eddie’s surviving band members, has something more ambitious in mind. Eddie Wilson, she believes, is still alive. Not only was his body never found. His last, and unreleased album was supposed to have been called “A Season in Hell.” Arthur Rimbaud, she points out, also disappeared at age 19 after a dazzling early career in poetry, never to write again, dying at the Hôpital de la Conception in Marseille at the age of 37. Eddie, she suspects, chose to fake his death rather than to slog along in a career he no longer believed worth the effort. Patti Smith, it must be noted, who coauthored Because the Night with Springsteen, and who looked to Rimbaud as an artistic inspiration, also quit writing music in 1980 to raise a family, only to reemerge in the mid-90s after the death of Kurt Cobain.
The key, as Maggie Foley explains to her editor, might lie in the demo-tapes for the never released album Season in Hell. If she can persuade one of Eddie’s old band mates to listen to the music so violently rejected by the their record company, she might be able to figure out exactly why Eddie died, or if he died at all. To her dismay, however, she discovers that while they’re mostly willing to be interviewed, none of them know where the demo tapes ended up themselves. The first member of The Cruisers she interviews is Frank Ridgeway, played by the 33-year-old Tom Berenger. Ridgeway is the band’s intellectual. He’s a graduate of Benton College, a loosely fictionalized Haverford, and the man who turned Eddie onto the idea that the lyrics to his music could be more like poetry than the shallow, commercialized pop he was writing when they met. Ridgeway is also a rival for Eddie’s girlfriend, Joann Carlino, who’s played by Helen Schneider, who probably gives the most subtle, complex performance in the movie. Wendell Newton, the Clarence Clemons stand in commits suicide shortly before Eddie’s death. Sal Amato is Ridgeway’s opposite, the bassist who wants to stick to playing music that sells, and Doc Robbins, played by a young Joe Panoliano, is the band’s manager. Since Eddie’s death they have all led unfulfilled lives. Amato makes a living playing in an Eddie and the Cruisers tribute band, the singer of a cover band for the real band he once played in himself. Ridgeway is a high school English teacher living in a trailer park in South Jersey. Joann works in Atlantic City along with the drummer Kenny Hopkins. Doc Robbins, an obscure, broken down DJ in Asbury Park might be the most unfulfilled ex-member of The Cruisers of all, bitterly regretting his shot at the big time, obsessed with finding the same tapes as Maggie Foley.
As the film progresses, as Maggie Foley, like Citizen Kane’s Jerry Thompson, interviews the surviving Cruisers one after another, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Eddie Wilson, we not only get to know Eddie, who’s played by an actor named Michael Pare, we begin to believe, with her, that Eddie is actually alive. Someone has been burglarizing the houses of all the ex-Cruisers. Could it be Eddie himself looking for the same demo tapes? That none of the actors in the film tries to work up any sense of having aged, or having been younger – they all look exactly the same at age 40 than they did at age 20 – would usually be considered a weakness. In Eddie and the Cruisers it’s part of what makes the film work. It erases the distinctions between past and present, between 1963 and 1982, expresses the fears of the young musicians that they might end up as middle-aged failures, and the regret of the middle-aged failures for the young musicians they once were. Eddie Wilson turns out to be a complex man, someone who has more inside him than his pretty boy appearance might suggest. He’s also the only member of the band who visibly ages – more on that later — but the film’s revelation is Helen Schneider. Tom Berenger does a credible job as Frank Ridgeway. I can take him or leave him as an actor, but Schneider, who’s was 33 when Eddie and the Cruisers was released, manages to express both the longings and insecurities of a 20-year-old and the nostalgia and regret of a 40-year-old. Her anxiety over her own working-class background – there’s a great scene at Haverford College where she talks about how she doesn’t feel she belongs, even to play a concert – is grounded in her vacillation between the blue-collar hunk Eddie Wilson and the Ivy League misfit Frank Ridgeway. It’s Joann who genuinely begins to hallucinate that Eddie might not have died, her longing to see her old lover alternating with her sense of dread that he might just be an evil spirit come back to haunt her and Frank, who rekindle their old relationship as the plot unfolds. By the final scene, she not only believes both that Eddie is still alive and that she belong with Frank. She convinces us to believe the same thing.
Roger Ebert, as he so often does, misinterpreted a film that didn’t quite fall inside any mainstream category. He hated the ending. I loved it. You might do both since Eddie and the Cruisers essentially has two endings, a beautifully lyrical, and yet perfectly logical explanation to the whereabouts of the tapes, and the identity of the person burglarizing their houses, and a “twist”that shows us what finally happened to Eddie Wilson. Like the painting in the Oscar Wilde novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his final appearance lets us see the passage of 20 years, all in a glance. Whether Eddie is a complete failure, or a man of true integrity who lived up to all his ideals while the people around him failed is left to the viewer to decide.