You know the song, even if you’ve never seen the movie:
Eddie and The Cruisers is one of those movies like Less Than Zero, Streets of Fire, or even, to a degree, Footloose, where the soundtrack outshone the movie. “On the Dark Side” still gets airplay today, thirty-one years after the movie came out. The movie itself is a cult hit at best.
This came as a bit of a surprise for the filmmakers. Of course, no one makes a movie if they don’t think they’ll make money on it (unless you’re Uwe Boll taking advantage of a tax loophole), but as was the case with Streets of Fire after it, the movie tested well, they had a huge audience waiting…until they released it, and they suddenly didn’t. The only things that saved Eddie and The Cruisers from total obscurity were its soundtrack (specifically, “On The Dark Side”) and cable TV.
This is a shame, because Eddie and The Cruisers is a good movie.
Not perfect. A few plot details aren’t followed up. A few characters could have been better developed (though that can be at least partially blamed on the Eighties’ hard-and-fast insistence that movies be ninety minutes long). But very good.
In fact, Eddie himself is one of the characters that we don’t get to know very well. But then, we never technically meet him.
Confused? It’s not really that complicated, but the spoilers begin here. You’ve been warned.
The story begins with television reporter named Maggie Foley (Ellen Barkin) pitching a story idea to her bosses: on a dark night eighteen years before, rocker Eddie Wilson of Eddie and The Cruisers went off the Stainton Memorial Causeway. His body was never found. Not news in itself, but here’s the rub: the Cruisers only ever released one enormously popular, enormously successful record (title: Tender Years). Eddie disappeared the night that their second, A Season In Hell, was played for the executives of Satin Records. A few days later, the tapes also disappeared, and have not been seen since.
Maggie gets the go-ahead for her story.
From that point on, the movie consists of two parallel plotlines: the present (1983), and the past of the surviving Cruisers’ memories and stories.
The first Cruiser we meet is Frank Ridgeway (Tom Berenger), our actual protagonist (Maggie takes little actual part in events, serving only as a catalyst). He’s on his way to his job as a high school English teacher when he hears one of the Cruisers’ old songs come on the radio. This sends us into our first flashback, showing us the night that the Cruisers arrived for an extended engagement at the beachside bar where Frank worked as a janitor. Eddie’s girlfriend and backup singer Joann – and through her, Eddie himself – discover that Frank is a talented poet (aka lyricist) and a not-half-bad pianist, and they hire him on the spot.
At first, Frank is reluctant to revisit his days as a Cruiser, but events in the present force him to re-examine the past. After his first meeting with Maggie, he goes home to find that his trailer has been ransacked. Soon after, he meets with one of the other ex-Cruisers – Doc Robbins, the band’s one-time manager and face man, now a disc jockey at a local radio station – and finds that his home has been tossed as well.
The saying is that once is luck, twice is a coincidence, but three times is enemy action – but this is just too much of a coincidence. What could the burglars be looking for? Doc Robbins’s suggestion: the old tapes of A Season In Hell. The Cruisers’ music is experiencing a revival, so anyone who could lay hand on the tapes could make a mint.
There is no sign that either of them call the police, and the break-ins are largely forgotten after this point.
I said it wasn’t perfect.
Anyway, Frank is inspired by all of this fuss to visit the other surviving Cruisers. He finds that they, like Doc Robbins and himself, are living disappointed lives, pale shades of their old ambitions. Sal Amato, the Cruisers’ old bassist, is playing in a nightclub with an Eddie Wilson look-alike and a band that calls themselves The Cruisers (Frank is surprised at the warm welcome he gets from Sal, for reasons we later discover). Kenny Hopkins, the drummer, is dealing blackjack in Atlantic City. Frank himself never wrote that book about his time with Eddie and The Cruisers that he meant to write. And of course, Wendell Newton, the Cruisers’ saxophonist, is dead of a heart attack lo these many years. Except…
Each meeting with a new Cruiser reveals more of that past, more pieces of the puzzle.
It seems that Frank’s integration into The Cruisers was not smooth. Sal and Doc both strongly doubt that Frank, who admittedly makes a rather weak first impression, has anything to contribute to the Cruisers. However, Eddie recognizes that Frank and the Cruisers need each other: his words can give their music meaning (and get them away from playing covers), while their music can give his words life.
This plays out in a scene that I, a non-musician, find fascinating. Frank plays “On The Dark Side” as a slow ballad, singing in the kind of voice that usually earns the accolade: “as a singer, he’s a great songwriter.” Sal and Doc scoff, but Eddie ignores them and orders Frank to speed up the tempo. One by one, the other Cruisers (starting with Wendell) begin to see the possibilities, and begin to improvise their own additions. Then Eddie starts to sing, and “On The Dark Side” as we know it is born.
For a time, things go swimmingly – Frank writes Tender Years, The Cruisers’ one original album, and they rise to some kind of stardom.
However, things begin to fall apart when Frank talks the Cruisers into playing at his old college.
Eddie and The Cruisers, being a bunch of working-class Joes (and Wendell being a black man in 1963) are decidedly uncomfortable in the prep-school atmosphere. The students are polite and even a good audience once they warm up a bit, but their worlds are so different that even their attempts to be friendly end up accidentally excluding the Cruisers. As Joann explains to Frank, she doesn’t know what to say when a girl asks her what college she goes to, because her own “college experience” amounted to her high school guidance counselor checking her out while he told her that she wasn’t college material. The expectation in her old neighborhood was that she would be married and pregnant with the first of six kids by the time she’d been out of high school a year.
Sounds familiar. In high school, I was one of the smart kids for whom college was just a given, but I knew plenty of Joanns.
Still, all of this would have amounted to nothing more than a difficult gig if Frank hadn’t chosen that moment to kiss Joann, and Joann hadn’t chosen to allow it, all within easy view of Eddie and the rest of the Cruisers.
Given the behavior that probably would have been expected of Eddie in the Old Neighborhood, Frank – and even Joann – are lucky that they keep all of their teeth. Instead, Eddie limits his revenge to a stage introduction that seems like a funny bit of patter to the audience, but which makes it clear to Frank that Eddie considers him to be nothing but a slumming rich boy. Frank, of course, offers his resignation, but Eddie doesn’t accept:
“We need each other Wordman. Words and music.” *Crosses fingers* “Words. And music.”
Though Frank never acts on it again, the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot dynamic has been created between him, Joann, and Eddie. This adds to the tension as the group begins working on Eddie’s magnum opus, A Season In Hell, but this trouble is quickly overshadowed by tragedy: Wendell’s death.
It is here, speaking with Kenny, that Frank learns that he doesn’t know all of the secrets of those days with the Cruisers. To wit: he still believes that Wendell died of a heart attack. He never knew, as Kenny did (having had the misfortune to find Wendell’s body), that Wendell died of a heroin overdose.
It’s only when Frank meets with Joann, now a stage choreographer in Wildwood, that the two parts of the story come together at the night at Satin Records, revealing the secret at the heart of the story.
To put it mildly, A Season In Hell was not well-received. Watching it from the perspective of 2014 (or even 1983), we can see that it was ahead of its time, but the record producers aren’t interested in genius. They want more hits like “On The Dark Side”. As Doc tries to bargain for more time, Sal argues with Eddie:
Eddie: “I want to do something great. I want to do something that nobody’s ever done before!”
Sal: “We ain’t great. We’re just some guys from Jersey.”
Eddie: “If we can’t be great, then there’s no reason to ever play music again.”
Eddie then storms out of the studio. Joann chases after him as Sal stays behind and blames Frank for everything that has gone wrong with the Cruisers.
Joann tries to console Eddie, but he says nothing as he drives out to The Palace of Depression. There, he gives a devastating rant on how everything he has built, everything he has worked for, has amounted to nothing.
Soon after, in the gray light of pre-dawn, Eddie drops Joann off at her hotel room, hugs her one last time, and then drives off…into mystery. Joann doesn’t have that answer.
What she does know is where the tapes of A Season In Hell disappeared to. She herself took them from Satin Records and hid them in the Palace of Depression, as her own tribute to Eddie. She and Frank go to retrieve them. As they go, she explains that there have been mysterious happenings around her place in recent days as well. Instead of a burglary, she’s been getting strange phone calls where someone plays “Tender Years” over the line, plus visits from a car that looks just like Eddie’s and which flashes its headlights at her in Eddie’s old signal before departing.
Not coincidentally, Frank and Joann are followed by a mysterious figure from the Palace of Depression. We don’t see this figure’s face, but its dress and mannerisms are much like Eddie’s, as is the car it drives to follow them.
Once we get back to Joann’s place, we see the walls plastered with pictures of Eddie and The Cruisers. She, perhaps more than anyone else, has been unable to let those days go. Her favorite picture is one of the three of them – herself, Frank and Eddie – all posed together. Frank has little to say to that. And just as well, because that’s when “Eddie” calls.
The scene where “Eddie” comes back for Joann is more powerful than perhaps the filmmakers even knew. Imagine your first real love. That one from back when the world was young and new and bright, and your heart was unscarred. You thought it would last forever. You thought you’d found The One. But for most of you, it didn’t work out that way. Sooner or later, it fell apart. They weren’t the person you thought they were, or if they were, they changed. Where you’d always been in perfect synch before, you found something fundamental where you couldn’t come to terms. Maybe you just grew apart instead of together. One way or another, it ended. If you’ve kept in touch, you’ve seen that person age – hopefully they’ve grown, but in any case they’ve changed, and their life has moved on without you. But imagine if that person showed up at your door tomorrow, not in their current form, but as you remember them when the two of you were at your best. Imagine them saying: “The last twenty years have all been a mistake. Come with me and things can work out like they were supposed to.” You’d be tempted, wouldn’t you? Regardless of what you’ve built in the meantime, you’d be tempted. Now imagine that person died when you were at the peak of your love. You never grew apart. They never had a chance to diminish in your eyes. That love has shone out across the years of your life as this one pure, perfect, beautiful thing that you once had. And now that person is back. They sound the same. They drive the same car. They perform all the little rituals that you had back then.
What else can Joann do? She rushes upstairs and changes her clothes so that she can come as close as possible to being the girl that she was back then – and when she comes down, Frank has left.
Actually, he’s just gone outside and hidden in her barn, and when “Eddie” arrives, he rushes the car, pulls “Eddie” out of the car, draws back his fist –
(Can’t blame him, if one of my friends faked his death and then appeared out of nowhere twenty years later, I’d want to beat the stuffing out of him too)
…only to find: Doc Robbins.
Doc has been behind all of the mysterious happenings over the course of the movie, or at least those in the present day. He believed that Joann knew where the tapes were, but that she would never give them to him.
What, exactly, his plan was after she got into the car with “Eddie” isn’t entirely clear. He doesn’t seem to have real violence in him.
Anyway, Doc – like the rest of the Cruisers – has been living a life of disappointment and desperation. They all once had greatness in their hands, but it died with Eddie. Now, he’d like nothing more in his life than to once – just once – make that Big Deal, and “bring home a winner”.
What happens next brings tears to my eyes every time. Joann – seeing his sheer unhappiness, with Frank’s approval – gives him the tapes. At first, he can’t quite believe it, that what he’s wanted so much for so long has come to him so easily. Then he takes them and hugs them to his chest like they’re the most precious things in the world. And to him, I’m sure they are. He has one last big chance, years after he thought his last chance was gone.
In that moment, all of Doc Robbins’s hopes are fulfilled, and he is transformed by the joy of it. The selfish conniver gone, he tearfully promises to make a deal – the sweetest deal – that will benefit all of the former Cruisers. Frank cheers him on as he drives off into the night…and then turns to Joann. Doc can have his tapes and his deal. They have all they need right here.
That scene…really hits me where I live. I’m approaching the same age as the “present day” Cruisers in this movie, and while I haven’t fallen from their dizzying heights, my life certainly hasn’t turned out like I expected it to. The idea that all of those old dreams might suddenly, out of nowhere, be reawakened and then fulfilled…I don’t know if the filmmakers even knew how powerful a thing they were making.
In any case, it seems that Doc Robbins was true to his word. The next thing we see is an “Eddie And The Cruisers” documentary playing on a storefront TV, with the title track from A Season In Hell playing. Maggie is giving her summation, talking about Eddie’s genius, and how far ahead he was of even the passion and confusion of his era.
What she all but says out loud is that Eddie And The Cruisers was a band that meant much to her in her youth. Maybe Tender Years defined an important time in her life and her generation. It’s not unlikely; in the alternate reality of this movie, it seems that Eddie Wilson was a musical pioneer who marked the turning point between what came before and what came after.
Or maybe that’s just my generation talking. It’s not hard to draw parallels between Eddie Wilson and Kurt Cobain. Maybe every generation has its Voice Of Youth who dies young and so remains forever the fiery young rebel, instead of growing into the middle-aged “Where are they now” special on VH1. Except…
Except the light from the TV fades, and there we see Eddie, bearded, middle-aged, and satisfied that his music is finally recognized. Then he walks off silently into the night.
Which is really the only way the movie could end.
Throughout this movie, we never really get to know Eddie. All we see are various characters’ points-of-view on him. Even to those closest to him, he’s a mythic and mysterious figure, with the details faded by time and grief. He looms over the proceedings like a ghost: maybe benevolent, maybe angry. How disappointing would it be if he really was just a fish-eaten corpse at the bottom of the river? How much would it kill the beautiful mystery if we had any clue where he’d been all this time, or where he was going?
Truly, it’s a good thing that there was never a sequel. That would have ruined everything.