Arguably remaining the most accomplished work of a filmmaker whose clear voice has often been undercut by a tendency to highlight, underline and bold the messages he is trying to impart, Spike Lee's 1999 period opus "Summer of Sam" marked a major turning point in the auteur's career. Moving away from stories specific to the African-American experience, Lee's historically potent portrait of New York ne'er-do-wells struggling to survive bracingly evoked a particular time and placeand not just because it is set against the backdrop of serial killer David Berkowitz's reign of terror during the sweltering summer months of 1977.
During the hottest season on record in Manhattan, the .44-caliber killerlater nicknamed the "Son of Sam" from a letter Berkowitz sent to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslinwent on a rampage, murdering primarily women with shoulder-length brown hair. The movie may be named after the Son of Sam, but he, as well as his grisly acts, pose as supporting characters. Instead, the film is, as the title suggests, about the fateful summer itself, NYC ablaze in hysteria as residents not only must contend with a killer on the loose, but also a ceaseless heat wave, a city-wide blackout, and mass looting. Amidst all of this are the central characters, Bronx locals Vinny (John Leguizamo), an unfaithful hairdresser, and his sweet wife, waitress Dionna (Mira Sorvino). When the killer strikes within moments of him leaving an area where he was having a quickie with Dionna's cousin, Vinny believes that he is next on the psychopath's hit list, taking it as a sign to change his philandering ways and become a better husband. Indeed, this vow proves more difficult than he anticipates. Meanwhile, Vinny's best friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), has recently returned to his old neighborhood with dreams of hitting it big with his amateur punk band Late Term Abortion. In a town where everything costs money, the struggling Ritchie finds himself sacrificing his dignity and selling his body at seedy XXX theaters, putting himself and his new relationship with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) in potential harm's way. When two police investigators approach mob boss Luigi (Ben Gazzara) about helping them search for the mysterious Son of Sam, he passes up the offer, opting instead to rally a group of his own friends to narrow down a list of suspects.
"Summer of Sam," like some of the very best films (Robert Altman's incomparable 1975 masterpiece, "Nashville
," comes quickly to mind), is a wildly ambitious motion picture overflowing with characters and interwoven plot threads, all of them participants in a microcosmic scheme to vividly and accurately portray a certain moment in our not-so-distant history. Aided by Spike Lee's fresh, assured direction, the picture is super-charged and electric, moving at a dizzying pace as the film drops the viewer right in the middle of the horrifying chaos. The alternate desperation and fear that the protagonists are feeling, not only due to the Son of Sam but also from their own troublesome relationships, is consistently palpable, succeeding as seldom period pieces do.
While most movies set somewhere in the past usually remind of a bunch of actors playing dress-up within manufactured settings, "Summer of Sam" feels as if Lee has literally gone back in time and shot the film in 1977. To acquire this, a great deal of work and research has gone into its subjective and technical design, from the set decoration, art direction and costume design, to the incorporation of several different film stocks to give the picture a gritty, "in-the-moment" aesthetic contrast. The cinematography by Ellen Kuras is strikingly distinct and moody, while the edgily astounding music score by Terence Blanchard permeates with an air of dreaminess and fantasy amidst a real-life nightmare. Complementing the score are the perfectly chosen '70s songs, one of the strongest soundtrack compilations in memory. The uses of The Who's "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" are enough to send a chill of cinematic ecstasy down one's spine, while Elvin Bishop's "Fooled Around and Fell in Love," ABBA's "Fernando" and "Dancing Queen," Heatwave's "Boogie Nights," Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," and Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" play an invaluable part in the creation of textural and emotional atmosphere in the narrative.
For an actor who had, until 1999, been best-known for more comedic roles, John Leguizamo is something of a revelation. His character of Vinny has his virtueshe is caring if reckless, a symbol of normalcy around his off-beat, foul-mouthed friends who hang out at a "Dead End" street cornerbut more often than not is destined to screw up everything right in his life. When Dionna finds out he has been having affairs behind her back, Vinny foolishly believes that she will forgive him for what he's put her through. This betrayal, though, may be more than their relationship can bear. Mira Sorvino (at the time coming off of an Oscar win for 1995's "Mighty Aphrodite" and the success of 1997's "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion") is stunning as Dionna, a strong, loyal young woman who experiences shame and regret over a marriage she might not be able to salvage. Because she is so firm in her beliefs yet wants to save her relationship, she finds herself violating her own morals in heartbreaking scenes that send her and Vinny on an out-of-control downward spiral. Through it all, Sorvino does not strike one false note, remaining deeply sympathetic even as she must make her own mistakes, and learn from them.
Adrien Brody is exceptional as the misunderstood Ritchie, possibly the most virtuous character in view even as he becomes the one most suspiciously looked-upon due to his quick-changing alternative lifestyle, while all other performances are also top-notch, from Ben Gazarra, as Luigi, to Jennifer Esposito, who brings a fetching naturalism to her relatively underwritten role as Ruby, to Patti LuPone, as Ritchie's loving but constantly overruled mother. Also of note, Spike Lee briefly appears as an inadequate news reporter who pops up every now and again to deliver a commentary on the goings-on in the Big Apple, adding a much-needed light dose of humor to the dark material.
Controversy surrounded the making of "Summer of Sam" when Spike Lee chose to film the picture in the exact NYC neighborhoods where David Berkowitz once prowled the streets. The awareness of this fact gives the film an added eerie quality, but the director avoids cheap exploitation, neither centering nor dwelling on the gruesome slayings. Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) is intermittently glimpsed as a severely unstable man stricken with schizophrenia and extreme hallucinatory bouts (in one scene, a black Labrador Retriever tells him to kill). When he sets out to take the lives of his victims, the murders are graphic but blunt, as stark as such moments of pure, unadulterated horror must be. An open-ended tapestry of lost souls caught in a storm of fear and uncertainty, "Summer of Sam" opens and closes with bookends featuring famed journalist Jimmy Breslin. "There are eight million stories in the Naked City," he says, "and this is one of them." It is, indeed, and a truly spellbinding and powerful one at that.