Monday, November 25, 2013

Hey Good Lookin' (1982, Ralph Bakshi)

Given the start and stop and start nature of its production and the compromises its creator was forced to make in the process, it's fortunate that Ralph Bakshi's Hey Good Lookin' succeeds as much as it does.  With that said, due to the aforementioned production complications, Hey Good Lookin' isn't entirely successful and often has the feel of an only partially realized vision.  Long absent on DVD, the Warner Archive has filled that void with its recent 16x9 DVD-R and it was a treat to be able to revisit the film after 20 years or so when I viewed it the first time--and was underwhelmed--via a VHS rental, in the classic WB clamshell box style.

Bakshi's autobiographical 1973 picture Heavy Traffic has been favorably compared to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets of the same year, and Scorsese's 2nd unit on Taxi Driver later captured footage of a theater showing Bakshi's Coonskin being firebombed, so it's somewhat appropriate that Bakshi used Mean Streets co-stars Richard Romanus and David Proval in leading (voice) roles in 1977's Wizards and in Hey Good Lookin'. The latter takes place in the type of ethnic, working-class New York milieu that both filmmakers so often traffic in.   

Vinnie, in a Coney Island scene that I don't recall in the finished film.
Hey Good Lookin' began production in the mid-'70s, but wasn't completed and released until 1982.  As with Heavy Traffic, Bakshi drew on his formative years in 1940s and '50s Brownsville Brooklyn for Hey Good Lookin', which centers on the friendship of Vinnie (Romanus), ladies man and leader of the Stompers, and his best pal Crazy Shapiro (Proval).  There are a number of parallels with Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers, which though set in the Bronx in 1963, deals with a lot of the same issues: gangs and how they inform masculine codes, racial tensions, awkward teenage sex, dysfunctional father - son relationships, and the push / pull relationship the characters have with their home turf.

Part of a 1974 Warner Bros. trade ad announcing the production of Hey Good Lookin'.
Bakshi's original version of the film was split between live action and animation--which the studio objected to--and featured original music and performances by the New York Dolls.  It's a real missed opportunity that WB did not provide any historical context in the form of retrospective interviews / commentary and did not resurrect any or all of Bakshi's original footage (which supposedly survives in the studio vaults).  This Wax Poetics interview with Bakshi goes into great detail about the troubled history of Hey Good Lookin' and how its handling by Warner Bros. was affected by the fallout from Bakshi's misunderstood masterpiece Coonskin

For its first half, Bakshi's film is consistently entertaining and funny, as it introduces its main characters and their environment, while also including some uniquely Bakshi-an moments, as when a pile of trash converses with the trashcan next to it before the trash is happily whisked off to its final resting place by a garbage truck.  Running under 80 minutes (not so uncommon for an animated film, of course), the film's last act is rushed and not as emotionally satisfying as it should be, as the Stompers become involved in a conflict with a black gang, the Chaplins, and Crazy goes off the deep end.  Even without having the various scripts or seeing Bakshi's original version of the film, it seems clear that much of the problematic aspects of the film are due to the restraints, in terms of time and money, imposed on Bakshi as he set out to finish the project.  But even when the narrative frustrates, the visuals are beautiful throughout, and for that alone it's thrilling to have the film available in a quality widescreen print...a Blu-ray would be so much better, but I'll take what I can get.

Music consistently plays a strong role in Bakshi's films and the filmmaker has always been intimately involved with the selection and placement of tracks, even if the studios were sometimes infuriatingly short-sighted, as was the case with Columbia and American Pop.  I recall being quite disappointed in the retro '50s-by-way-of '80s score by John Madara and Ric Sandler.  It's a better than I remembered, but after reading the above-linked interview, I can't help but think of how much better this film and its soundtrack could be, particularly with the original tunes by the New York Dolls and classic doo-wop that Bakshi describes.

Crazy, Eva, Vinnie, and Roz cruising.
Warner did not release Hey Good Lookin' widely or heavily promote it and that is evident in the fact that Bakshi recalls almost nothing of the film's release, and in the theatrical trailer (included on the DVD), which is essentially just the scene of Vinnie combing his hair at the beginning of film with the film's billing block attached to it, along with a weak voiceover, which poorly sells the film and Bakshi.

Coming on the heels of Heavy Metal and Bakshi's own American Pop, Hey Good Lookin' represents one of the final examples of adult-oriented animation produced by a major studio; it's the last of Bakshi's "street trilogy," following Heavy Traffic and Coonskin.  His next film, the 1983 PG-rated fantasy Fire and Ice, would be his last until 1992's Cool World, a film bowdlerized by its studio, Paramount.