The Cult Movie Club: Diner (1982)

I knew it was good, but, revisiting it again last week, I’d forgotten quite how good ‘Diner’ was.

Barry Levinson’s directorial debut was the very definition of a sleeper movie when it first came out in March 1982. MGM virtually buried it on its initial release (and their appalling trailer didn’t help – see below), disappointed that it scrimped on the ‘Porky’s’/’Animal House’-style hijinks.

It took a private screening set up by Levinson and executive producer Mark Johnson and subsequent rave review from one attendee – legendary film critic and movingtheriver.com favourite Pauline Kael – to secure it an audience.

Some have made bold claims that ‘Diner’ is the most influential film of the 1980s, pointing forward to ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, Tarantino, ‘Seinfeld’, ‘The Sopranos’, Judd Apatow and beyond.

Set in Baltimore during December 1959 (it definitely counts as a Christmas movie), it focuses on a group of friends in their early 20s, trying to negotiate relationships and get through their working lives, but always finishing off the night at the Fells Point Diner (based on the real Hilltop Diner in northwest Baltimore) for a chin-wag about Sinatra and a fill of French fries with gravy (or a roast beef sandwich, fought over in one of the film’s most famous scenes).

Daly, Rourke, Stern, Bacon, Guttenberg and Reiser in ‘Diner’

Though there are shades of ‘American Graffiti’, ‘Animal House’ and even ‘Porky’s’ (Kael rather evoked Fellini’s ‘I Vittelloni’), the protagonists in ‘Diner’ seem older than in those movies, though you wouldn’t always know it – they seem totally at ease with themselves but struggle with members of the opposite ‘camp’. In fact, sadly, the sexual politics in ‘Diner’ ensure that it would probably struggle to get a green light these days.

The movie features almost of a who’s-who of ’80s talent: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin, all acting as if their lives depended on it. Arguably, none have done better work than ‘Diner’. One wonders how much rehearsal and/or ‘team-building’ Levinson was able to secure for them (quite a lot according to this excellent documentary), because they’re absolutely at ease with each other.

And, though almost entirely scripted (Levinson’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), the movie has a loose, dreamy feel. These guys feel just like your – my – mates, from that golden era when everyone was rooted in the same spot and going through the same stuff.

Levinson packs the action with memorable secondary characters – the local screwball obsessed with ‘Sweet Smell Of Success’, Carol Heathrow (who unfortunately locates Rourke’s ‘pecker’ in her popcorn), the kindly pool-hall owner, Big Earl (who eats the whole left side of the menu), the picky TV-store customer, Bagel, Kevin Bacon’s smarmy brother, and many more.

He also creates a totally believable environment on a budget, replete with classic cars and almost-deserted suburban streets, and an impressive opening one-take shot introducing us to the main characters. He also brings in interesting period details like the glimpse of Kind Of Blue in Shrevie’s sacred vinyl collection, and the soundtrack is also brilliant, from R’n’B to doo-wop (though the only bum note is the very ’80s-sounding ‘live’ track played in the go-go bar towards the end of the movie).

‘Diner’ also has an almost ‘Withnail’esque finale, looking uncertainly into the next decade with its famous freeze-frame ending. And, like all the best coming-of-age movies, it has you wondering what the hell happened to these characters. Did Boogie make a go of it in the home improvement trade, and stay with Jane Chisholm? Did Modell ever get himself a car? How did Shrevie and Beth’s marriage turn out, not to mention Eddie’s?

So, Barry – any chance of a sequel?

(Postscript: A musical version of ‘Diner’ made a brief appearance a few years ago…and Sheryl Crow wrote the songs. No comment…)

Story Of A Song: McCoy Tyner/Phyllis Hyman’s I’ll Be Around

What makes a ‘good’ singer? In a recent podcast, Donald Fagen spoke about the importance of vocal tone, saying that he’d rather listen to Ray Charles singing a mediocre song completely ‘straight’ than a jazz singer pointlessly embellishing a songbook standard.

It got me thinking about Phyllis Hyman’s crackerjack performance on ‘I’ll Be Around’ (not to be confused with the Alec Wilder standard sung by many including Frank Sinatra and Chaka Khan), from McCoy Tyner’s 1982 CBS album Looking Out.

The song, which has haunted me since I first heard it in the late 1980s, was mainly written by Stanley Clarke and recycled from his lacklustre (despite featuring some lovely Stan Getz saxophone) 1979 track ‘The Streets Of Philadelphia’.

‘I’ll Be Around’ comes from an otherwise fairly mediocre McCoy album, mainly notable for featuring Carlos Santana, Clarke and Gary Bartz on several tracks. But Tyner’s fabled work with John Coltrane must have seemed a distant memory by 1982. In jazz terms, CBS was obsessed with Wynton Marsalis and neo-classicism, though still had time for Herbie Hancock’s hip-hop explorations and Miles’s comeback.

Phyllis and McCoy in the studio

Maybe McCoy in turn thought he’d hit paydirt by grabbing Santana, Bartz and Clarke (huge Coltrane fans, all), but Looking Out is now barely a footnote to his illustrious career – it was his second and last album for Columbia.

‘I’ll Be Around’ doesn’t feature Santana or Bartz, and was the sole LA-recorded track on the album (the other tracks being recorded at the Power Station in NYC), adding the excellent pairing of Charles ‘Icarus’ Johnson on guitar and Ndugu Chancler on drums.

Chancler and Tyner work together almost telepathically, the former driving the song forward, though always with one ear on the groove, the latter sprinkling on his majestic chord voicings.

Hyman’s vocals are huge, luscious, but she also adds some subtle flavours over Tyner’s piano solo, consciously removing vibrato and sometimes singing ever-so-slightly sharp for emotional effect. Of course it’s virtually impossible now to assess this heartfelt performance without considering her tragic suicide in 1995. But, happily, ‘I’ll Be Around’ gives a different slant on a fine career and shows Hyman’s mastery of almost all forms of black music, from disco to jazz.

Neal Schon & Jan Hammer: Untold Passion/Here To Stay

The great jazz/rock pioneers of the early 1970s generally had a very mixed 1980s. But when keyboard genius Jan Hammer left the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1973, no-one could have predicted that he’d become a bona fide pop star just over ten years later.

Two fascinating albums – originally on CBS, now re-released as a two-fer by BGO – trace Hammer’s early-1980s journey to ‘Miami Vice’, via a collaboration with Journey/Santana guitarist Neal Schon.

Of course Hammer had spent a few years in the late ’70s touring big venues with Jeff Beck and making ever-rockier solo albums. But Schon was probably a more successful musician than Hammer in 1981, if a more anonymous one – his playing has a lot of chops but isn’t particularly distinctive.

The first Schon/Hammer album, 1981’s Untold Passion, has a pleasingly dry, lo-fi quality, recorded solely at Hammer’s home studio in upstate New York, with the Czech genius also playing some great drums and engineering. The musicianship is exemplary and the sound has a real consistency. Unfortunately the same can’t always be said of the material.

Schon’s Phil Lynott-like vocals have some charm, particularly on the excellent ‘Hooked On Love’ and ‘I’m Talking To You’, but predictably it’s the three instrumentals that really do the business. ‘The Ride’ is a super-catchy Schon composition, while Hammer’s ‘On The Beach’ and the title track look forward to ‘Miami Vice’, the latter with a distinct Giorgio Moroder flavour and some kick-ass solos.

The second album, 1982’s Here To Stay, is less successful, adding a cameo from the other members of Journey and lots of stereotypical 1980s production values, and the duo are obviously making a far more concerted effort to get onto MTV. They made it with the crunching ‘No More Lies’, and almost grabbed a minor hit too. The hilariously ill-judged video is well worth a look:

Neither Untold Passion nor Here To Stay were big hits – the former stalled at #117 in the US album charts, the latter sunk without trace, but these are really interesting projects for Hammer fans. When they work, they really work, and there are some great instrumental duels between the two virtuosos.

And you can definitely hear Tubbs’ Cadillac revving up…

The Cult Movie Club: The King Of Comedy (1982)

Looking at the trailer and publicity for James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau biopic ‘The Disaster Artist’, it’s hard to ignore the ‘King Of Comedy’ comparisons. 

Featuring Robert De Niro’s fascinating and detailed turn as anti-hero Rupert Pupkin, Martin Scorsese’s classic black comedy was released 35 years ago today.

If Wiseau didn’t actually exist, Hollywood would probably have to invent him. Recent American cinema is full of Wiseaus and Pupkins – desperate characters, probably a few cards short of a full deck, who will do almost anything to make it.

Pupkin passive-aggressively stalks celebrities for their autographs, but then comes to believe that he is owed a shot at fame. Talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is his passport to success – Pupkin and disturbed rich-girl Masha, brilliant played by Sandra Bernhard, kidnap him. Pupkin then demands the opening monologue on Langford’s nightly TV show.

Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in character

If ‘The King Of Comedy’ had been made today, it would probably be hailed as a modern classic, a fable for our times, a coruscating attack on narcissism, celebrity culture and unchecked ambition. It’s ‘Nightcrawler’ meets ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. But it stiffed on its original release (not helped by a substandard trailer – see below), grossing barely $3 million against a $19 million budget.

The studio didn’t know how to market it, trying to sell it as a knockabout comedy. Scorsese sensed the bad vibes gathering around the film long before it was released, telling writer Peter Biskind, ‘A close friend of mine told me “The buzz is bad.” I hate that. When the buzz is bad, people don’t want to be associated with the picture. But they were right – the film was a bomb. It’s called “The King Of Comedy”, it’s Jerry Lewis, and it’s not a comedy. Already it’s a problem…’

Yes, it sometimes feels like a succession of skits strung together, almost in the style of Brian De Palma’s early films ‘Greetings’ and ‘Hi Mom’. And it would be nice to get a bit more access to Pupkin and Masha’s backgrounds.

But Scorsese, Lewis, De Niro and Bernhard, working instinctively from ex-Newsweek film critic’s Paul D Zimmerman’s slight but intriguing story, create something toxic and completely memorable.

Scorsese fills the screen with significant minor characters, mainly playing themselves and recruited from the ‘real’ TV world, and he obviously has deep respect for Lewis and all he stands for (though has less respect for the all-pervading, gossipy influence of TV culture).

Bernhard, prodded by De Niro, is superb, given free rein by Scorsese to improvise freely: ‘I cover the waterfront, remember that!’ she bawls at Pupkin, just before one of the director’s typically bracing cuts.

There are many excruciating moments: Pupkin’s arrival at the Langford house (De Niro apparently screamed antisemitic abuse at Lewis to elicit the correct level of outrage in his response to having his golf game interrupted) and Masha’s ‘seduction’ of Langford. Is his violence towards her ‘justified’?

And then there’s Pupkin’s monologue, shown in one long take with no cutaways – Scorsese and De Niro dare us to laugh at this schmuck, and it’s unsettling when one or two of his gags hit the spot.

‘The King Of Comedy’ is the De Niro/Scorsese collaboration I return to the most. Nobody gets killed, but a lot of people get hurt. Very hurt indeed. And it bears repeated viewings: recently I noticed an intruder in the restaurant scene where Pupkin tries to persuade his ‘girlfriend’ Rita to accompany him to Langford’s. Check him out. He’s behind Pupkin, mocking him throughout. I take it he’s supposed to stand in for the entire film-going audience.

David Bowie Stars In Alan Clarke’s ‘Baal’ (1982)

The films of Alan Clarke generally go straight into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ file. Features such as ‘Scum’ and ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ courted huge controversy while his groundbreaking TV work including ‘The Firm’, ‘Psy Warriors’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Road’ and ‘Made In Britain’ shone a light on the darker corners of the Thatcher years to devastating effect.

Those films and many others adorn the superb new BFI box set ‘Disruption’ which gathers all his television work made between 1978 and 1989 – including David Bowie’s remarkable turn as Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero, adapted by Clarke and John Willett from the 1918 play. For some reason, ‘Baal’ was scarcely mentioned in Bowie obituaries as one of his more successful screen performances, a serious oversight.

Bravely broadcast by BBC One at 9:25pm on Sunday 2nd March 1982 (cosy Sunday night viewing it wasn’t), ‘Baal’ was filmed at Television Centre (W12 8QT!) during the summer of 1981, just after Bowie had recorded ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen.

According to producer Louis Marks, Bowie jumped at the chance to portray the ultimate street punk, and was already a fan of Clarke’s work. He was also reportedly completely undemanding, modest and eager to please on set, requesting only a car and bodyguard and receiving the standard BBC fee.

Bowie could also hardly look less ‘star-like’ in ‘Baal’, with his battered teeth, dark eyes, ratty beard, grimy face and dishevelled clothes; he completely embodies the role of the amoral troubadour. Clarke captures him mostly in long shot with very lengthy takes in the classic alienating Expressionist style, but the camera positively adores Bowie’s Baal with his alligator grin, dangerous sexuality and moments of sudden violence. He also delivers several plainsong ballads straight to camera in strident, superb voice, accompanying himself on banjo. The subsequent ‘Baal EP’, re-recorded at Hansa Studios with added instrumentation, even got to number 29 in the UK singles chart, Bowie’s last release for RCA.

‘Baal’ makes for fascinating viewing these days and you only wish the Beeb would take such chances again. Critics of the time were pretty scathing about Bowie’s performance, but their comments make for fairly amusing reading these days.

It’s scarcely believable to think that only a year after ‘Baal’ was broadcast, Bowie was rocking the zoot suit and peroxide blond quiff for the Let’s Dance media offensive. It’s also virtually impossible to think of another star of such magnitude who would dare take on such a bleak, singular project. A true artist.

Further reading: ‘Alan Clarke’ edited by Richard Kelly