Inspired by recent events, I decided to revisit Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" from 1999 the other night, hoping to come away from it with a bit more appreciation than my first viewing granted. No dice. Sure, Spike does a reasonable job of hitting all the requisite cultural milestones of the era, but he makes some sweeping generalizations and leaves some gaping holes that render the rest of the film unenjoyable... or at least for insufferable pedants like myself.
Unsurprisingly, my biggest gripe with "Summer of Sam" is its ham-fisted handling of NYC Punk. Academy award-winner Adrien Brody hands in a respectable performance as Richie, a furtive square peg and nascent punk rocker surrounded by thinly-sketched Italian Brooklynite stereotypes, but he's given some clunky writing to contend with. As a cloyingly anglophilic outcast (through much of the first reel, he adopts an ersatz British accent that would make Dick Van Dyke wince), Richie predictably makes his way out of Brooklyn to go live closer to the action at CBGB in Manhattan. Once ensconced therein, his band plays to a richly unvaried gaggle of punk stereotypes as reliant on cartoonish convention and cultural revisionism as Lee's depiction of Italian-Americans.
I had a similar beef with Alex Cox's "Sid & Nancy" and Oliver Stone's "The Doors." Even if you're not an obsessive music dork like myself, all you have to do is go back to era-specific footage of CBGB to realize that in 1977, the punks didn't really look like "punks," if you smell what I'm cookin'. The kids who fill out Spike Lee's depiction of the CB's scene all sport the stylistic trappings of 80's hardcore and 90's alt.rock/grunge. Towards the end of the somewhat laborious film, Richie's character sports a tall, blonde mohawk -- a tonsorial flourish that really wouldn't take off for several years. C'mon, Spike, do your homework.
Blah blah blah, I know. None of this really matters, but Lee's sloppy rendering of what some would consider a crucial aspect of the era he was trying to convey undermined the whole project for me. Perhaps if he'd spent as much attention on those details as he did on the sports of the day (the Yankees -- admittedly a huge phenomenon in the summer of 1977 -- practically get as much screen time as the killer), it would have been a better film.
Also, why is Brody's character obsessed with The Who? Yes, the Who were inarguably a profound influence on punk, but Spike Lee zeros in on the band's synth-laden, operatic and thoroughly hirsute early-70's period (circa Who's Next), rather than their days as edgier, taut Mods. It doesn't add up.
Anyway, perhaps Spike just bit off a bit more than he could chew. To see a better, era-reverent handling of the same type of film, I'd suggest David Fincher's "Zodiac" from 2007. For a better depiction of the New York in the summer of 1977, meanwhile, I'd STRONGLY recommend checking out the VH1 documentary, "NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell." "Summer of Sam," though? Skip it.