Eddie and the Cruisers is a 1983 American film directed by Martin Davidson with the screenplay written by the director and Arlene Davidson, based on the novel by P.F. Kluge. It was marketed with the tagline "Rebel. Rocker. Lover. Idol. Vanished."
The film is about two different stories, one told in real time, and one told in flashbacks. The present day story concerns a television reporter named Maggie Foley (Ellen Barkin) investigating the mysterious death of musician Eddie Wilson (Michael Paré) and the search for his band's second album, which disappeared from the vaults of Satin Records the day after Eddie's alleged death. The story told in flashbacks portrays a 1960s rock 'n' roll band called Eddie and the Cruisers.
The band makes a name for itself while playing regularly at a Somers Point, New Jersey club called Tony Mart's. It is there that they meet Frank Ridgeway (Tom Berenger), whom Eddie hires to be the band's keyboard player and lyricist, and whom he nicknames Wordman. Band manager Doc Robbins (Joe Pantoliano) and bassist Sal Amato (Matthew Laurance) are skeptical of hiring Frank, who is not a trained musician or experienced songwriter, but Eddie believes that Frank is crucial to the band's development. Rounding out the Cruisers is saxophonist Wendell Newton (Michael "Tunes" Antunes), background singer and Eddie's girlfriend Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider), and drummer Kenny Hopkins (David Wilson).
With Ridgeway's help, the band stops playing cover songs and releases Tender Years, an album of original material that instantly becomes a hit, especially with the songs "On the Dark Side", "Wild Summer Nights", and the title track. The band members spend a year recording their next album, A Season in Hell, during which Eddie's artistic and creative talents often are buried beneath his arrogant and rebellious traits, leading to arguments between him and Robbins. At one point, Amato tells Eddie he doesn't understand what he's looking for, to which Eddie responds that he wants to be great. Sal replies "We ain't great. We're just some guys from Jersey." Eddie makes it clear that if the band cannot be great, then there is no reason to ever play music again.
The band's second album is a culmination of all that Eddie had ever hoped to do with music, different from anything that anyone else had ever done to that point, and he was satisfied with it. However, it is controversial and considered dark and strange by the record company, Satin Records. The company rejects the album, determining it will not to be released to the public. In the early morning hours after Satin refuses to release the new album, Eddie's car crashes through the railing and going over the Stainton Memorial Causeway. Eddie is declared dead, but his body is never found.
Almost 20 years later, Satin re-releases the band's first album, which becomes a surprise hit, climbing higher on the charts than it did originally. The producers of a television show decide to produce a documentary on the band, with an attempt to bring light to the band's second album, which disappeared from the vaults of Satin Records the day after Eddie's alleged death. Though the namesake of the documentary is the band's lead singer, it revolves around the other members of the Cruisers, especially Ridgeway and their memories of the band. All of the original Cruisers have moved on with their lives except Wendell Newton, who had died of an overdose in August 1963 at age 37. (His body had been found by Hopkins in a local motel.) Only Sal Amato remained in the music business, leading a new lineup of Cruisers. Ridgeway is now working as a high school teacher in Vineland. Doc is a local radio disc jockey in Asbury Park. Joann is a stage choreographer in Wildwood, and Hopkins works in an Atlantic City casino.
Much of the story takes place in flashback, prompted by Foley's interviews with the band members. Tensions building within the Cruisers during the flashback sequences coincide with Frank's willingness to be more open with Maggie. Frank recalls, during the interview, that he suggested the band play at Benton College where Frank was a student, but Eddie felt uncomfortable there, stating that they would not fit in because it was not "their kind of place". Although Eddie reluctantly agrees, he gets back at Frank by referring to him as "Toby Tyler" to the audience when naming off his band members in an attempt to make Frank look bad. When Frank tries to quit, Eddie realizes his error and reconciles with him, telling Frank that they need each other.
The story's climax involves Joann, completing the one piece of the flashback puzzle that Frank could not: what happened the night that Satin refused to release the band's second album. After storming from the studio, Eddie brought her to the Palace of Depression, a makeshift castle made of garbage and junk that he visited often as a child. She reveals it was in fact she who took the master tapes for the album from Satin Records, hiding them in the Palace of Depression, where she felt they belonged.
Frank and Joann go back to the Palace of Depression to retrieve the master tapes. After returning to Joann's house, she receives a phone call she believes to be from Eddie, who has been missing for almost 20 years, and with whom she remains in love. Frank does not believe it to be Eddie who called her, and he hides outside and watches as a blue 57 Chevy, identical to Eddie's, arrives at the house, and a voice that sounds like Eddie's calls to her. Before Joann can reach the car, Frank pulls the driver from behind the wheel, who turns out to be Doc, who was using the trickery to obtain possession of the master tapes. They nonetheless give him the tapes, which he promises to release under a deal that will benefit all of them.
The film closes with Maggie's story about the band, being viewed on televisions in a store window and watched by a crowd outside. The credits roll as a song from A Season in Hell is played for the first time, and as the lights from the television dim, the crowd walks away, leaving only one person standing at the window. The reflection appears in the store window, revealing it to be a much-older and long-lost Eddie Wilson. He smiles serenely, proud to know that his work, misunderstood all those years ago, is finally being heard, and he disappears into the night.
Tom Berenger as Frank Ridgeway,
Michael Paré as Eddie Wilson,
Joe Pantoliano as Doc Robbins,
Matthew Laurance as Sal Amato,
Helen Schneider as Joann Carlino,
David Wilson as Kenny Hopkins,
Michael "Tunes" Antunes as Wendell Newton,
Ellen Barkin as Maggie Foley,
Joanne Collins as Regina Lewis,
Only two cast members, Michael "Tunes" Antunes, the tenor saxophone player for John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band, and backup singer Helen Schneider were professional musicians in the fictional band.
Martin Davidson has said that the inspiration for the film came from a desire to "get all my feelings about the music of the last 30 years of rock music into it". He optioned P. F. Kluge's novel with his own money and at great financial risk. He wrote the screenplay with Arlene Davidson and decided to use a Citizen Kane-style story structure. He remembered, "That was in my head: the search." Davidson made a deal with Time-Life, a company that was going into the movie-making business. However, they quickly exited the business after making two films that were not financially successful. He was understandably upset and a couple of days later he went out to dinner and met a secretary who had worked on his first film. He told her what had happened to his film and she gave his script for Eddie and the Cruisers to her business partners. In a relatively short time, a deal was struck with Aurora and Davidson was given a $6 million budget. During their short existence, Aurora made three films - The Secret of NIMH, Heart Like a Wheel and Davidson's film.
In order to get a credible looking and sounding band for the film, Davidson hired Kenny Vance, one of the original members of Jay and the Americans. He showed Davidson his scrapbook, the places the band performed, the car they drove in, and how they transported their instruments. Vance also told Davidson stories about the band, some of which he incorporated into the script. Tom Berenger has said that he did not try to learn piano for the film but did practice keyboards for hours in his trailer. Matthew Laurance actually learned how to play the bass through rehearsals. Only Michael "Tunes" Antunes, the tenor saxophone player for John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, and Helen Schneider were professional musicians in the cast. Michael Pare was discovered in a New York City restaurant working as a chef. He said of his role in the film that it was "a thrill I've never experienced. It's a really weird high. For a few moments, you feel like a king, a god. It's scary, a dangerous feeling. If you take it too seriously ..." Davidson had the actors who played in Eddie's band rehearse as if they were getting ready for a real concert. Pare remembers, "The first time we played together - as a band - was a college concert. An odd thing happened. At first, the extras simply did what they were told. Then, as the music heated up, so did the audience. They weren't play-acting anymore. The screaming, stomping and applause became spontaneous". Davidson recalls, "One by one, kids began standing up in their seats, screaming and raising their hands in rhythmic applause. A few girls made a dash for the stage, tearing at Michael's shirt. We certainly hadn't told them to do that. But we kept the cameras rolling". Additionally, New Jersey musician Southside Johnny was hired as a technical advisor for the film.
According to Davidson, when he completed making the film, three different studios wanted to distribute it, and he went with Embassy Pictures because they offered him the most money. However, they had no prior experience in distribution and were unable to properly release it in theaters. Davidson remembered, "And six months later, somebody said, 'Your picture is appearing on HBO this weekend,' and I didn't even know".
Vance asked Davidson to describe his fictitious band and their music. Initially, Davidson said that the Cruisers sounded like Dion and the Belmonts, but when they meet Frank, they have elements of Jim Morrison and The Doors. However, Davidson did not want to lose sight of the fact that the Cruisers were essentially a Jersey bar band and he thought of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The filmmaker told Vance to find him someone that could produce music that contained elements of these three bands. Davidson was getting close to rehearsals when Vance called him and said that he had found the band - John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band from Providence, Rhode Island. Davidson met the band and realized that they closely resembled the band as described in the script, right down to a Cape Verdean saxophone player, whom he cast in the film. Initially, Cafferty was hired to write a few songs for the film, but he did such a good job of capturing the feeling of the 1960s and 1980s that Davidson asked him to score the film.
After successful screenings on HBO in 1984, the album suddenly climbed the charts, going quadruple platinum. The studio re-released the soundtrack in the fall of 1984. Nine months after the film was released in theaters, the main song in the film, "On the Dark Side" was the number one song in the country on Billboard's Mainstream, Rock, and Heatseeker charts; and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Another single from the film, "Tender Years", peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Eddie and the Cruisers was originally intended to open during the summer but a scheduling error resulted in a September release when its target audience - teenagers - were back in school. The film had its world premiere at Deauville. Embassy Pictures threw a promotional party for the film at a West Hollywood dance club in September, 1983 where Cafferty and his band played.
The film was a box office flop, receiving many negative to mixed reviews from critics. The film was released into theaters on September 23, 1983 and grossed USD $1.4 million on its opening weekend. It would go on to make a paltry $4.7 million in North America. The film was pulled from theaters after three weeks and all of the promotional ads pulled after one week.
In the fall of 1984, the single "On the Dark Side" from the soundtrack album suddenly climbed the charts, as the film was rediscovered on cable television and home video, prompting the studio to briefly re-release the album.
Eddie and the Cruisers was not well received by critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, "the ending is so frustrating, so dumb, so unsatisfactory, that it gives a bad reputation to the whole movie". In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Some of the details ring uncannily true, like the slick oldies nightclub act that one of the Cruisers is still doing nearly 20 years after Eddie's supposed death. Other aspects of the film are inexplicably wrong. Eddie's music sounds good, but it also sounds a lot like Bruce Springsteen's, and it would not have been the rage in 1963". However, she did praise Pare's performance: "Mr. Pare makes a fine debut; he captures the manner of a hot-blooded young rocker with great conviction, and his lip-synching is almost perfect". Gary Arnold, in the Washington Post, wrote, "At any rate, it seemed to me that what Eddie and the Cruisers aspired to do was certainly worth doing. The problem is that it finally lacks the storytelling resources to tell enough of an intriguing story about a musical mystery man".
In 1984, Eddie and the Cruisers was discovered by additional audiences during its first pay cable run on HBO. Embassy Pictures re-released the film for one week based on successful summer cable screenings and a popular radio single, but it once again failed to perform at the box office. Looking back, Davidson said, "that picture should have been a theatrical success. There was an audience for it. People still watch it and still tell me about it".
Davidson was offered to direct a sequel to the film but wasn't keen on the idea and wanted no participation. The eventual project was released as Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! in 1989.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license