Breaking Away (1979) Blu-ray Review: How Kids Grew Up Before the Internet

Following the near collapse of the American film industry somewhere between the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s – a semi-catastrophe brought on (mostly) thanks to lavishly over-budget and egotistical studio productions, a war in Vietnam, and something the history books refer to as the “Hippie Movement” – the few folks who were still going to the picture show seemed to demand more realism. That, or the once lavish budgets that used to be handed out to filmmakers at the drop of a hat, and which were now being frequently slashed by some now very nervous studio executives were so difficult to work with, that they had no choice but to make something a little more down to earth.

Even after George Lucas took us far, far away from the Earth, the more “grounded” filmgoers of the country reveled in tales of simple folk being, well, in a nut shell, just plain simple. Thus, much like an occasionally referenced quip about women in Italian horror movies being either saints or sluts, the moving picture reference books pretty much point out that the population of America was reduced to being nothing more than hippies and white trash during the ’70s. From truckers and smugglers on the highway burning up valuable petrol during a nationwide gas crisis, to families moving into the mountains to live off the land or start their own cults, that was essentially it if.

Dirty Harry? Yeah, well, I think he might even fall into that category, despite his urban setting! Heck, even Luke Skywalker was white trash – who gets recruited by an old guru in a robe to join his cult, and later sends him out to kill his own father! Did I mention the doctors put me on new meds, incidentally? Sorry folks, I can’t help it, I grew up in a small rural, redneck community before we had such things as the Internet. Luckily, I had the home video boom to keep me occupied (and away from the brainless antics of the local yokels). In fact – and there’s nary a soul in the entire world who will deny this – growing up where and when I did molded me into what I am today.

And while that may not be saying too terribly much in the long run, it introduced me my first genuine true love: the art of film – be it richer or poorer, for better or for worse. I was a short skinny kid with a slightly sardonic personality who wanted to be Italian so I could make movies like Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci. It’s little wonder then that, while watching the coming of age story Breaking Away – especially at this stage in my life, wherein I have experienced both childhood and fatherhood, I could identify with practically every one of the film’s characters, such as its central protagonist, Dave (Dennis Christopher): a boy who dreams of being Italian (complete with a cat named Fellini and a passion for European-style cycling.

Dave’s father (the great Paul Dooley, who also played Christopher’s patriarch at least two other times in unrelated movies) is utterly flabbergasted by his son’s seemingly-weird transformation – to say nothing of his having aspirations – while his mother (Barbara Barrie), tries to be a little more understanding of her only son’s Breaking Away from his roots. Dave has a small handful of friends in the rather remote, rural town of Bloomington, Indiana, such as Cyril (Daniel Stern, making a very comfortable film debut), a lanky smart-mouthed geeky sort of kid; and Mooch (a youthful, pockmarked Jackie Earle Haley, who looks even creepier with hair), the short lad out of the bunch who constantly gets picked on because of his height.

Finally, we have bad boy Mike (Dennis Quaid), who could very well be Dave’s best friend, despite the former high school quarterback’s issues with anger and permanently ingrained fear that he has already outlived his usefulness. And I confess I can only sympathize with the last character now that I am older and still have yet to make something resembling a contribution to the world. Lastly, honestly, it’s all something I can nod my head at now with that certain “Mm-hmm” expression on my kisser, before I become bizarrely overwhelmed with an urge to sit in a rocking chair and wonder what the heck is up with the kids these days with their iPhones, the rap, the MySpace, and those darn hula hoops.

Where was I? Ah yes, Breaking Away. So then, our four lads find themselves at that awkward phase of life wherein we realize it is time to move on, except we aren’t entirely too sure if we want to, should, or need to. This can be particularly difficult in a small town (and I should know), especially with the case of Bloomington, which is home to a number of invading college students with no interest in the locals, whom they insultingly refer to as “cutters.” And no, we’re not talking about a certain mental condition found primarily in those neo-goth “emo” kids: this term is derived from generations of local stonecutters of the regional limestone market which has resulted in everyone but the stonecutters themselves rich.

Dave dreams of being a cyclist and touring Italy (sometimes the two things go hand-in-hand), and even pretends to be an exchange student when a young co-ed (Robyn Douglass) on a moped catches his eye. Mooch has been left home alone (wait, should I even say that in a review for a film that features Daniel Stern?) by his parents, who have relocated to Chicago, and is thinking of marrying his also fresh out of high school sweetheart (Amy Wright) on his mind (my advice: don’t do that, kids). Meanwhile, poor Cyril is just trying to figure out what the hell he should do with his life, while poor Mike grows angrier over the fact that everyone wants to move on and more competitive with a resident frat fart.

Hart Bochner (whose father, Lloyd, who will forever be remembered for The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”) co-stars as the over-privileged college kid who enjoys pushing the local cutter kids’ buttons. P.J. Soles, having apparently survived both Halloween in Illinois the previous year and high school in North Carolina with Carrie after all, can be seen as a co-ed in a few scenes. She was actually married to Dennis Quaid at the time. John Ashton, everybody’s favorite police officer with no sense of humor from the Beverly Hills Cop series, plays Dennis Quaid’s brother here – who, not surprisingly, is the local constable.

One of the last big hits of the same decade that brought us an energy crisis, multiple revolutions around the world, and disco (the latter of which, is still alive and well with the Italians), Breaking Away managed to put a little humanity back in film’s human drama. The 1979 offering from Peter Yates, the very same director who brought us both Bullitt and Krull (wow, talk about yin and yang!), garnered several awards from both sides of The Pond (and then some), and even managed to spawn a short-lived television prequel series that nobody really watched. All this for a coming of age movie that partly has to do with bicycling.

In fact, Breaking Away is quite possibly the only movie in history to partly focus on cycling and not suck in the process. But with a cast like this, you couldn’t go wrong even if the movie took a typically formulaic tragic turn (which I kept expecting). Why, Dave could turn into an obsessed film buff who kills those who wronged him (which is what people kept expecting from me – and probably still do), Cyril could wind up as stuck being tortured by Macaulay Culkin, Mooch could become an inferior demonic child killer, and poor Mike could end up having to live with the shame of having a brother who went crazy and was exiled to Canada and it would still be a good movie.

Since its initial theatrical release in 1979, Breaking Away has succeeded in capturing many an American spirit. When the legendary, long-defunct Magnetic Video Corporation – who were essentially the very first home video label ever – began licensing movies from 20th Century Fox for what was soon to become that glorious big boom way back when (the same one that would later capture my spirit – and soul), Breaking Away made the grade. Several different incarnations later, the movie wound up being released on DVD at least twice; the first release being non-anamorphic, from those days where everyone still had 4:3 television sets.

Well, it’s 2015 now, and, with the exception of the kind of rustic ruralites I once broke away from myself, HD and 16×9 are almost mandatory. And, thanks to Twilight Time, a High-Definition Blu-ray debut of this now-classic dramedy is now available. The 1080p video presentation looks quite stunning (just look at the water during those scenes at what is known today as Rooftop Quarry!), while the English 1.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack delivers every line of dialogue – from Dennis Christopher’s painful “Pretalian” accent to Daniel Stern’s murmured quips – beautifully, so much so that the included English (SDH) subtitles weren’t even necessary for me.

Whereas the old 20th Century Fox DVDs usually only included a couple of TV spots as extras for their Standard-Definition releases (or a secondary, 4:3 open matte print of the film), the folks at Twilight Time have gone a step further than the film’s parental company probably would have ever done. And here’s one damn good reason to pick it up (apart from the new, glorious transfer): an audio commentary with star Dennis Christopher himself. He’s a pure delight to listen to, and is joined by Twilight Time’s Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. There’s even a short audio-only extra where Mr. Christopher talks about his introduction to and experience with Federico Fellini, which is just as wonderful to listen to.

Sadly, the aborted TV series is not included here, but the two TV spots from the old DVDs are, identified by their individual promotional titles (“Road to Adulthood” and “Academy Booster”). The film’s original theatrical trailer itself is also included, and all trailers/spots are shown in their open matte form, if that means anything to anyone (it does to me – but then, I get excited when I see a Magnetic Video Corp. cassette in thrift stores). The aforementioned also Ms. Kirgo also provides the wonderful liner notes for this Twilight Time release, which is limited to 3,000 pressings.

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Luigi Bastardo

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