Thursday, February 12, 2015

Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates)

Peter Yates' Breaking Away is such a longtime favorite of mine, a movie I've loved for so long and know backwards and forwards, that it's difficult to write about it with any kind of objectivity.  The story of a group of small-town pals in that awkward phase between childhood and adulthood is, on paper, unexciting, but the treatment it's given here results in a film that is universal and timeless, eminently quotable, rousing, funny, full of charm, emotionally rich, and profoundly moving.

Very much a post-Rocky film, it shares with that other classic sports film of the late '70s, a exquisitely-drawn collection of singular characters and a vitally strong sense of place, in addition to the requisite "get on your feet and cheer" sporting event finale.  They both have that slightly messy-opposite of slick-offbeat, but real quality that went out with the '70s.

Cycling and Italy-obsessed Bloomington, Indiana high school grad Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) hangs with his good friends Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) without much thought for the future, except for which bike race he's going to sign up for next.  All of this is anathema to his blue collar, ex-stone cutter, car dealer dad (Paul Dooley) who has no idea how to connect with his boy.

Even though everything leads to an expertly mounted, supremely satisfying final race, it is the alternately hilarious and poignant interplay between Dave and the other characters, as well as the accurate portrayal of '70s middle America--specifically Bloomington--and subtle class commentary that constitute the film's lifeblood, the things that make it truly something special.

Breaking Away was a 5-time Oscar nominee and a winner for Steve Tesich's original screenplay, but by the time I discovered the movie for myself as a young teenager, it was nearly 15 years-old.  Like several movies I latched onto at that formative age, it was out of fashion (unless you were on the IU-Bloomington campus, I guess), in between its initial popularity and eventual revival as a modern classic.  In those pre-Internet days, it was not a movie that my peers were aware of and I never saw it appear on network television or cable.  Between thumbing through my Ebert, Maltin, and Peary movie guides and visits to the drama section in the video store, I stumbled upon Yates and Tesich's superior coming-of-age / sports movie hybrid and immediately fell under its spell and, as with other favorites of mine that no else seemed to care about, I did my damnedest to spread the gospel to friends and acquaintances.

Somewhat remarkably, until the late '90s, Fox never released the movie as a sell-through on VHS; it remained priced for rental in spite of its Oscar pedigree and cast of future stars.  I eventually bought the film on laserdisc (originally issued in 1981), which remains the worst quality laserdisc I ever viewed or owned.  These things, I think, contributed to the film's obscurity by the time I was 13 or 14 and first becoming aware of it.  Eventually, there was a sell-through VHS, featuring an updated transfer and, later, a DVD, which marked the film's first widescreen release on home video, but which included only the trailer and tv spots as extras.  All of this is to say that Twilight Time's new Blu-ray--with gorgeous new transfer, informative commentary track with star Dennis Christopher, and Patrick Williams' marvelous adapted and original score isolated on another track--is especially gratifying and looks particularly beautiful to my eyes after having experienced the film for so long in poor quality editions.

As for the film itself, it is one of the best of the '70s, something years of woeful home media iterations could never take away from it.  The much-improved technical presentation does accentuate and finally do justice to d.p. Matthew Leonetti's very attractive lensing and Patrizia von Brandenstein's equally impressive art direction.  Both aspects of the production are suitably unfussy, never calling undue attention to themselves while contributing to the film's carefully achieved level of visual realism. What never suffered was Tesich's delightful, autobiographical screenplay given life by a once-in-a-lifetime cast. Dooley and the Oscar-nominated Barbara Barrie as Mr. and Mrs. Stohler, the aforementioned Quaid, Stern, and Haley, Robyn Douglass as the co-ed who Dave woos. And, of course, the truly wonderful, ever-lovable Dennis Christopher as Dave.

When I was younger, it always made me sad that Christopher, who performed so beautifully and memorably here, never had another film role of this caliber; one of the chief pleasures of the Twilight Time Blu-ray is getting to hear Christopher share his memories of making the film and his gratitude to it for what it provided him. Ironically, Christopher would appear a couple years later in Chariots of Fire, alongside the late Brad Davis, who delivered his own knockout, star-making performance in 1978's Midnight Express (alongside elder Quaid brother Randy); similarly to Christopher and equally saddening to me, none of Davis' subsequent parts matched the stature and impact of his breakout role.

As a teenager and young twenty-something, it was the kids and their camaraderie that I was drawn to, that I wished I'd had when I was in high school, but when I watch it as an adult, with the experience of the premature loss of my father in mind, it is the film's portrayal of parent-child relationships, or lack thereof, as well as its deft portrayal of class differences that are most striking to me.  The push-pull dynamic between Dave and his father; the quiet, but steady love of the ever-wise Mrs. Stohler; the continual absence of parental figures for the other boys, particularly Cyril; the insecurity that leads Dave to pretend he's Italian in order to impress a college girl.

Twilight Time's disc is a beauty, a long time coming, and one that I will treasure for the long haul.


Her, Suzanne76 said...

The reflectiveness and enthusiasm of your writing nicely mirrors the thoughtfulness and passion in the film.

Ned Merrill said...

Thank you...I'm happy to hear that those things come through in my essay.

Robbie in Tokyo said...

Hi Ned Merrill (The Swimmer?)

I really enjoyed your Breaking Away review. It's a great film. I've always loved it. Was able to catch it herein Tokyo on the big screen. Hadn't seen it since it was released.