The Criterion Collection is on a serious roll this Spring. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing White Material (a superb modern French film), Sweetie (an early, classic Jane Campion film) and now I get to spend a couple hours with the release of Jonathan Demme’s oft-forgotten 1986 cult classic Something Wild. The arrival of this film on Blu-ray a mere 25 years after its theatrical release is a curious exercise for me. I just finished reviewing Betty Blue – another forgotten ’80s cult favorite that is trying to find a home in a world that doesn’t allow films to slowly find a cult following anymore. When Something Wild was released in the mid-’80s, Jonathan Demme was not the Jonathan Demme that directed award-winning films like Silence Of The Lambs and Philadelphia. He was the Roger Corman protege who had directed films like Citizen’s Band, Caged Heat and the Talking Heads’ concert film Stop Making Sense. This little film would be a breakout of sorts for Demme and lead the three main actors into much larger roles.
Something Wild, like many cult films, is hard to put into a single category. I think it’s partially E. Max Frye’s script and partially Demme’s experience on lower budget “exploitation” features. A movie that can play as both romantic comedy and action thriller is going to have a better chance at eventually finding an audience. But it better deliver on those promises.
It’s interesting to compare the original theatrical poster to the Criterion Collection cover. The theatrical poster is cartoony – with Melanie Griffith on her stomach with her tongue over her lips and Jeff Daniels drawn upside down hanging abover her. The tagline reads “Something different / Something daring / Something dangerous”. The font of the movie title makes the movie look like a quirky romantic film. Compare that to the harsh film noir film cover on the Blu-ray. On the new cover – there’s a heart inside a green pair of handcuffs. The title font and cover design looks like a Saul Bass poster (like a Vertigo or The Man With The Golden Arm) and hints at a much more serious and sinister film.
Jonathan Demme thrived with the larger budget that a studio film provided him. One of the best things was using his knowledge from his days as a music journalist and his experience working on Stop Making Sense to put together a soundtrack that was cutting edge and as important to the story as any John Hughes soundtrack of the day.
”Loco De Amor” by David Byrne.
The title song is Spanish for “Crazy for Love”. Over the credits we are introduced to New York of the mid-’80s. And we first meet Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) as a typically yuppie businessman (a tax lawyer) of the day. The first scene has Charlie leaving a tiny diner without paying for his lunch. On the sidewalk outside he’s confronted by Lulu (Melanie Griffith). This small rebellious act is pushed even further by Lulu who convinces-kidnaps Charlie to go on an afternoon adventure with her. Step by step, Lulu pushes Charlie to greater and greater rebellious acts – both those illegal and more importantly morally rebellious.
Melanie Griffith is perfect for this role. Coming off a superb performance in DePalma’s Body Double, here she’s turned loose as a sexy, mysterious dangerous woman. And yet, her little girl voice, impish smile, and simple outlook on life makes her irresistible to the viewer and to Charlie. Their adventures take them to a hotel room in Jersey. The scene in the hotel room is probably remembered best for a lingering shot of Griffith’s naked body but it’s an important first turning point in the film. Afterwards when Charlie is showering, still with one of Lulu’s handcuffs hanging off his wrist, we get our first glimpse that Charlie is not the straitlaced businessman we might have thought. We see his enjoyment at having lied to his boss about where he was spending the afternoon. The handcuffs symbolizing his attachment to Lulu will remain on until they meet Lulu’s mother, the next turning point in the relationship.
”Ever Fallen In Love” by Fine Young Cannibals.
The cover of the Buzzcocks’ song is almost too obvious of a choice. But the way Roland Gift’s voice gives the song more hope and less depression makes this cover a perfect choice. The couple seem as mismatched as possible. Lulu’s carefree lifestyle doesn’t mix well with Charlie’s button-down, Christmas Club saving world. And each step along the way over the first hour of the film is a constant juxtaposition of falling in love and wondering what he is doing. I love the way this version emphasizes the lyric “did you ever fall in love?” over the “with someone you shouldn’t have” that the original does.
As they move further away from New York City and into Pennsylvania – the relationship starts to evolve. Demme creates an interesting dynamic that holds up through the film – every time there’s a moment that seems predictable, it’s about to change. After it has happened three or four times, it gets to be the new normal. But instead of becoming tiring, the viewer actually gets a thrill seeing that it will come but not knowing exactly what it’s going to be. That’s true when we meet Lulu’s mother and while pretending to be married learn that Lulu is really named Audrey and she’s got blonde hair not black. This is a fun call back to her role in Body Double. But it also signifies a significant shift in their relationship. She’s released him from her bond (the handcuff) and when he finds that her mother knows that Audrey is lying, his love for her actually seems to grow.
”Not My Slave” by Oingo Boingo
At Audrey’s Class Reunion everything changes in an instant. At the exact halfway point is the arrival of Ray Liotta. Ray plays Ray Sinclair and he eats up scenery unlike many characters ever have. In fact, he overshadows every scene the rest of the way. The smoldering looks he gives fit perfectly with the way Danny Elfman growls “you’re mine” in the Oingo Boing song. Ray has that same devilish look that Elfman had on the album covers too.
We find that Ray and Audrey are married and that is just the start of the full transition that happens over the next hour. The majority of the rest of the film is the characters dealing with the complete reversal from the beginning of the film. Audrey is the innocent, hurt young girl and Charlie seems much more like the rebellious guy who isn’t what he appears to be. But it’s all overshadowed by Ray Liotta’s character.
Ray Liotta shares traits with another evil character from 1986 – Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Each character is trying to protect a woman they love from an man they’ve fallen in love with who isn’t as innocent as they initially seemed. Ray’s lame but successful seduction of the teenager in the gift shop at the hotel, while Audrey is in the pool, feels beyond creepy to the point of rape or molestation. It doesn’t ever go over the actual line but knows just where to make the viewer uncomfortable.
”Man With a Gun” by Jerry Harrison
Another Talking Heads alumnus bookends the title song. The film races to its conclusion as a full thriller. And this song plays as the characters reenter New York City. The reversal is complete from when we left the city. Charlie is in charge, Audrey has been “kidnapped” by him, and they are in love. The lyrics “the rules do not apply” are fitting for a man that seemed to only follow the rules at the beginning.
So, is it a happy ending? That’s vague at best. There’s a conclusion. The film ends with another song that envokes the term “wild thing”. But are Charlie and Audrey going to be happy together? Have they learned a lesson about rebellion and lying? In the beginning, neither character was true to themselves. They returned to New York as after having revealed themselves to each other. But the film finds Charlie back at the diner from the beginning of the film. Here he will try to redeem himself by paying the bill. But Audrey’s appearance hints that they may repeat some of the things that caused the problems in the first place. Maybe that was a symbolic vision of the rest of the ’80s – that we were destined to repeat the mistakes of the first part of the decade.
The Blu-ray version has been restored under the supervision of the DP Tak Fujimoto and Jonathan Demme. The DTS-HD soundtrack sounds better than when I saw it in the theater in 1986 and really lets the soundtrack sing. There’s a lack of special features in general for such a fun, cult release. But you do get interviews with Demme and writer Frye and the original trailer. I hope the release can spread by the same word of mouth that made it a college favorite for most of the ’80s.
”Wild Thing – I think I love you”