A Movie A Day #339: Continental Divide (1981, directed by Michael Apted)


Ernie Souchak (John Belushi) is a reporter in Chicago.  He specializes in stories about municipal corruption and Mafia power plays.  Needless to say, living in Chicago, that keeps him busy.  Literally everyone in the city knows him.  Even the two muggers who try to steal his wallet recognize him and share inside information about which street gang is about to make a big move.  From a modern day vantage point, it seems strange to see everyone so excited about meeting a newspaper columnist but this movie was made in 1981, long before an army of bloggers put journalists like Ernie Souchak out of business.

Souchak’s gotten in trouble with the mob so his editor (Allen Garfield) sends him out of Chicago for his own protection.  Chain-smoking city boy Ernie Souchak finds himself in the Rocky Mountains, assigned to track down and get a story on Dr. Nell Porter (Blair Brown).  Dr. Porter has spent the last few years researching and protecting bald eagles.  She doesn’t like reporters but Souchak wins her over.  Despite being two very different people, Nell and Souchak fall in love.  But can a city boy and a country girl stay together, especially when there are people in Chicago who want Souchak dead?

A strange movie, Continental Divide was meant to be an updated version of the romantic comedies that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn used to make and Blair Brown was even made up to look like a young Hepburn.  It was one of the first films to be produced by Steven Spielberg, who has always been better at picking material as a director than a producer.  It was directed by Michael Apted, a great documentarian who has never shown himself to have much affinity for comedy.  It was written by Lawrence Kasdan, who specialized in homages to classic film genres and who, after this movie, made it a point to direct the majority of his scripts.  And it starred John Belushi, in his only romantic film lead.

Belushi, of course, is the main reason why anyone would want to see this movie.  It was his second-to-last movie, coming out between the popular success of The Blues Brothers and the infamous failure of NeighborsContinental Divide gives Belushi a chance to play a character, instead of just a version of his own wild persona.  The legend has always been that Continental Divide showed the actor that Belushi could have become if not for his tragic death.  The truth is that Belushi frequently looks uncomfortable and it is often evident that he is having to reign back his natural instincts.  Belushi’s best scenes are the ones where Souchak is walking around Chicago and hustling everyone that he meets.  In those scenes, he’s confident and in control and it’s easy to get swept up in his life.  His scenes with Blair Brown, where he has to be sincere and serious, are far more awkward.  Belushi has enough good scenes in Continental Divide to make you regret the performances that we never got but, at the same time, it’s evident that he still had room to grow as an actor.

If Belushi hadn’t died and had instead gone on to make several more movies (and hopefully beat his drug addiction at the same time), Continental Divide would probably be forgotten.  Instead, it now exists as a hint of what could have been.

So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star: The Idolmaker, Breaking Glass, That’ll Be The Day, Stardust


So, you want to be a rock and roll star?  Then listen now to what I say: just get an electric guitar and take some time and learn how to play.  And when your hair’s combed right and your pants fit tight, it’s gonna be all right.

If you need any more help, try watching these four films:

Idolmaker

The Idolmaker (1980, directed by Taylor Hackford)

The Idolmaker is a movie that asks the question, “What does it take to be a star?  Who is more interesting, the Svengalis or the Trilbys?”  The year is 1959 and Vinny Vacari (Ray Sharkey, who won a Golden Globe for his performance but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing the movie) is a local kid from New Jersey who dreams of being a star.  He has got the talent.  He has got the ambition and he has got the media savvy.  He also has a receding hairline and a face like a porcupine.

Realizing that someone who looks like him is never going to make hundreds of teenage girls all scream at once, Vinny instead becomes a starmaker.  With the help of his girlfriend, teen mag editor Brenda (Tovah Feldshuh) and a little payola, he turns saxophone player Tomaso DeLorussa into teen idol Tommy Dee.  When Tommy Dee becomes a star and leaves his mentor, Vinny takes a shy waiter named Guido (Peter Gallagher) and turns him into a Neil Diamond-style crooner named Cesare.  Destined to always be  abandoned by the stars that he creates, Vinny continually ends up back in the same Jersey dive, performing his own songs with piano accompaniment.

The Idolmaker is a nostalgic look at rock and roll in the years between Elvis’s induction into the Army and the British invasion.  The Idolmaker has some slow spots but Ray Sharkey is great in the role of Vinny and the film’s look at what goes on behind the scenes of stardom is always interesting.  In the movie’s best scene, Tommy performs in front of an audience of screaming teenagers while Vinny mimics his exact moments backstage.

Vinny was based on real-life rock promoter and manager, Bob Marcucci.  Marcucci was responsible for launching the careers of both Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte.  Marcucci served as an executive producer on The Idolmaker, which probably explains why this is the rare rock film in which the manager is more sympathetic than the musicians.

breakglass_lrg

Breaking Glass (1980, directed by Brian Gibson)

At the same time that The Idolmaker was providing American audiences with a look at life behind-the-scenes of music stardom, Breaking Glass was doing the same thing for British audiences.

In Breaking Glass, the idolmaker is Danny (Phil Daniels, who also starred in Quadrophenia) and his star is an angry New Wave singer named Kate (Hazel O’Connor).  Danny first spots Kate while she is putting up flyers promoting herself and her band and talks her into allowing him to mange her.  At first, Kate refuses to compromise either her beliefs or her lyrics but that is before she starts to get famous.  The bigger a star she becomes, the more distant she becomes from Danny and her old life and the less control she has over what her music says.  While her new fans scare her by all trying to dress and look like her, Kate’s old fans accuse her of selling out.

As a performer, Hazel O’Connor can be an acquired taste and how you feel about Breaking Glass will depend on how much tolerance you have for her and her music.  (She wrote and composed all of the songs here.)  Breaking Glass does provide an interesting look at post-punk London and Jonathan Pryce gives a good performance as a sax player with a heroin addiction.

thatll-be-the-day-poster

That’ll Be The Day (1973, directed by Claude Whatham)

Real-life teen idol David Essex plays Jim MacClaine, a teenager in 1958 who blows off his university exams and runs away to the Isle of Wright.  He goes from renting deckchairs at a resort to being a barman to working as a carny.  He lives in squalor, has lots of sex, and constantly listens to rock and roll.  Eventually, when he has no other choice, he does return home and works in his mother’s shop.  He gets married and has a son but still finds himself tempted to abandon his family (just as his father previously abandoned him) and pursue his dreams of stardom.

David Essex and Ringo Starr

Based loosely on the early life of John Lennon, the tough and gritty That’ll Be The Day is more of a British kitchen sink character study than a traditional rock and roll film but rock fans will still find the film interesting because of its great soundtrack of late 50s rock and roll and a cast that is full of musical luminaries who actually lived through and survived the era.  Billy Fury and the Who’s Keith Moon both appear in small roles.  Mike, Jim’s mentor and best friend, is played by Ringo Starr who, of all the Beatles, was always the best actor.

That’ll Be The Day ends on a downbeat note but it does leave the story open for a sequel.

stardust-1

Stardust (1974, directed by Michael Apted)

Stardust continues the story of Jim MacClaine.  Jim hires his old friend Mike (Adam Faith, replacing Ringo Starr) to manage a band that he is in, The Straycats (which includes Keith Moon, playing a far more prominent role here than in That’ll Be the Day).  With the help of Mike’s business savvy, The Stray Cats find early success and are signed to a record deal by eccentric Texas millionaire, Porter Lee Austin (Larry Hagman, playing an early version of J.R. Ewing).

When he becomes the breakout star of the group, Jim starts to overindulge in drugs, groupies, and everything that goes with being a superstar.  Having alienated both Mike and the rest of the group, Jim ends up as a recluse living in a Spanish castle.  Even worse, he gives into his own ego and writes a rock opera, Dea Sancta, which is reminiscent of the absolute worst of progressive rock.  Watching Jim perform Dea Sancta, you understand why, just a few years later, Johnny Rotten would be wearing a homemade “Pink Floyd Sucks” t-shirt.

Stardust works best as a sad-eyed look back at the lost promise of the 1960s and its music.  Watch the movie and then ask yourself, “So, do you really want to be a rock and roll star?”

21494_2