Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City

Baby, It's You (1983, John Sayles)

Though it carries a 1982 copyright, I'm listing Baby, It's You as a 1983 release since it premiered on March 4, 1983.  This means we are fast approaching the film's 25th Anniversary. Unfortunately, its distributor, Paramount, has stopped releasing catalog titles to standard DVD in its rush to jump on the HD-DVD bandwagon, which now looks like the wrong bet, but that is another story.  What this means is that Baby, It's You will likely remain m.i.a. on DVD--unless Criterion options it from Paramount--which is a shame because the film is one of the rare 1980s teen films that resists the cliches and standard devices of that much-maligned genre. It was for this very reason that the Jeffrey Katzenberg/Michael Eisner-led Paramount of the early '80s wrested editorial control from writer/director Sayles.  As Sayles tells it in Faber and Faber's Sayles on Sayles, the Paramount honchos tried to pull another Porky's or Fast Times at Ridgemont High out of Sayles' class conscious 1960s-set drama and failed miserably. The studio-mandated version tested more poorly than Sayles' preferred cut and so Paramount begrudgingly dumped the film in early '83 to a handful of theaters where it died a quick death. The film, which centers around the mostly one-sided relationship between a privileged, Jewish high school student (Rosanna Arquette) and a working-class, Italian boy (Vincent Spano), deserves much better.

Except for television showings, the film would be unavailable to viewers until 1989 when Paramount Home Video finally released the film on VHS and laserdisc with a rather unfortunate "rescored" soundtrack.  Sayles adds: "So there was no video available of Baby, It's You for almost six or seven years. Anybody who wanted to see it on tape had to know somebody who had taped it off of Showtime.  And by the time it came back, certain songs had gotten much more expensive."  Like several other studios at the time--Universal being the worst offender--Paramount failed to secure music rights for home video.  Because of this, a number of the great pop songs that populate the film's stellar soundtrack--in its original incarnation--are replaced on home video with cheap-sounding K-Tel-like versions of these songs.  Thankfully, the video and laserdisc retained the anachronistic Bruce Springsteen tunes that Sayles so presciently and effectively utilized in the film alongside hits from the period. One hopes that if the film does eventually appear on DVD, it does so with its original soundtrack completely intact. However, the prohibitive price of this soundtrack cannot help the film's chances and is a likely reason for its continued absence on DVD.  French Postcards and American Hot Wax are two other highly worthwhile Paramount titles that have suffered similar fates on home video due to music rights issues.

Music aside, Sayles' film is the most polished of his early films, no doubt due to the contributions of renowned cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, working on his first American film after years with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  The semi-autobiographical script by Sayles and producer Amy Robinson (Mean Streets, Chilly Scenes of Winter) is brought to vivid life by young leads Arquette and Spano, and a very impressive supporting cast which includes Robert Downey Jr., Matthew Modine, Tracy Pollan, and Fisher Stevens.  Neither Arquette or Spano have received worthy film roles in some time...Baby, It's You is a striking reminder of their unique talents and a vital component of writer/director Sayles' distinguished career.


erik hogstrom said...

That film surely deserves to be given the deluxe DVD treatment.

Jeremy Richey said...

I agree...Arquette is an astonishing talent who has never gotten her due.

J.D. said...

Yeah, I'd love to see Criterion get their hands on this one. It's a shame that the music rights are keeping it in limbo. This such a wonderful little film that really needs to be re-discovered. Definitely one of Sayles' best.

Ned Merrill said...

About the only real nice thing one can say about the Legend disc is that it's so cheap. Hopefully, Criterion might still take a stab at it. I'm sure the prohibitive music costs are part of the reason that Criterion has not taken it on, as I am quite sure Criterion wouldn't release a title with an altered soundtrack.