The Discs go Around Around Around Around Around Around…
DIRECTED BY PHILIP KAUFMAN/1979
STREET DATE: MARCH 21, 2017/KINO LORBER
Wandering in the wilderness for nearly forty years is a rough go, whether you’re chosen people or not. Filmmaker Philip Kaufman’s 1979 rough n’ tumble nostalgia opus The Wanderers was most certainly never chosen. People didn’t even know it’s name. At least, not until now.
After decades of languishing in cinema obscurity from the outset, Kino Lorber has, at long last, delivered this coming-of-age early 1960’s (essentially still the late ’50’s) Jersey ensemble to the masses. Several months ago, it even got a theatrical (re?)release on the college/art house circuit. Having only played a handful of screens in ’79, this recent run, as humble as it was, nonetheless greatly increased The Wanderers total screen count.
What we’ve got here is a very solid, very sure-handed rendition of a time and place made truly palpable.
Even in the 1970’s heyday of 1950’s nostalgia, The Wanderers (based upon the novel by Richard Price, referred to by Kaufman as “the Bronx Mark Twain”) couldn’t catch a break. Perhaps the realistic edge of unrelenting course language, moral dubiousness and typical young male misogyny proved to be too much of a cold splash of water to the still-warm glow of American Graffiti (1973), and so much of what followed. Never mind that the course language depicted is merely a version of street reality and the misogyny is unfortunately nothing unique to this particularly red-blooded male microcosm; there were of course those whom couldn’t stomach The Wanderers at the time.
So no, it’s not “a sweet look back at a bygone era.” It is, however, “The Bronx, ’63.” The film opens with the sounds of The Three Stooges (in space!) on a small, black and white television. It’s being wholly ignored by the couple on the couch, adorned in the cathode glow, among other glows. They’re in the throes of passion, garters and rumpled nylons adorning the busy legs of Despie (Toni Kalem).
The fella is wearing a burnt yellow and marinara orange windbreaker, complete with a collar and a stitched custom logo on the back: “The Wanderers!” It’s the first of many such jackets that are worn by the ensemble cast members of the titular Italian gang.
Outside on the streets, trouble is brewing. A couple fellow Wanderers have incited the short-fused wrath of the Fordham Baldies, a rival gang made up of imposing leather jacketed bald guys, lead by the massive and solid Terror. (Which is spelled out in silver studs on the back of his jacket.) “Get ’em!!!”, he bellows.
And the chase is on! It plays out to vintage rock n’ roll through quick cuts and low, canted angles. On the voluminous Blu-Ray supplements, the dynamic visual direction adapted by Kaufman for this particular film is referred to as a “comic book style”. Today, just about everything is shot and edited to resemble this. In 1979, though, Superman had just flown convincingly for the first time a meager year earlier. Comic books and super heroes were in the legitimate film zeitgeist for the first time. Not far away, at the same time, Walter Hill was making his own R-rated comic book-influenced street gang classic, The Warriors.
One of the Wanderers gives a special whistle, cuing young Richie (Ken Wahl) to immediately disengage from his lovemaking, and head out to help. A Wanderer is in trouble! An abrupt “superhero” style sendoff into the streets for our main character. Despie can only begin to pull herself together as he’s already heading out the door. Brotherhood unity can’t compete with love (or lust), even as the latter is the evergreen topic choice and life goal among the guys when they are together. “Wanderers forever!”
What we’ve got here is a very solid, very sure-handed rendition of a time and place made truly palpable. Kaufman, immediately off of his seminal remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, crafts a rock n’ roll urban flashback that owes more to the milieu of Saturday Night Fever than, say, Grease.
While the cast may not be a who’s who of now-famous faces the way that American Graffiti or even Dazed and Confused is, it stands tall with young talent. The Wanderers is Ken Wahl’s film debut, as he would go on to other success on TV’s Wiseguy. A radiant Karen Allen, whom would go on to cinematic immorality with Raiders of the Lost Ark a couple of years later – a film which Kaufman shared a hand in conceiving – enters the story about midway through as a folky, literate young woman primed for the protest era to come. It’s Toni Kalem, though, whom shines the brightest amongst the talented ensemble. As the daughter of a local organized crime lord, her character runs the gamut of emotional vulnerability, outright scorn, and female manipulation. These are two ladies that are definitely not all the same, as Bronx rock n’ roller Dion sings of pretty girls in his hit song “The Wanderer”, the title track of the movie.
There are many great moments in The Wanderers, such as when the Asian gang The Wongs ominously appears at night, or a particularly volatile classroom scene in which a well-meaning teacher’s straight talk about race utterly backfires. It does such an effective job of establishing the Bronx as its own microcosm community, that the two moments which point towards bigger realities and looming cultural changes play as transcendent. It’s in these brief but powerful moments of observation that the truly malleable nature of this insular world is revealed to be as fragile as it is. It’s here where are the bittersweet heart beneath the macho exterior of The Wanderers lies.
Following the triumphant theatrical rollout of their restored version of The Wanderers, film fans are now treated to this extras-packed two-disc Blu-Ray set. Replete with era-appropriate high-bar picture quality from the 2K restoration and terrific sound, Kaufman’s adaptation of Richard Price’s very personal Bronx tale is a treat for collectors. The vintage rock n’ roll score, serving up one hit after another, pops with life and vibrancy as it did in the era depicted.
The central bonus feature is a “preview version” of the film, which plays six minutes longer at 124 minutes. Accompanying that cut is an optional commentary by accomplished film professor Annette Insdorf, which is terrific. Kaufman’s commentary on the theatrical version is less lively and too sporadic to be called solid, but he does offer up the occasional interesting anecdote.
Much more lively are his in-person Q&As, also included here, taped recently at revival screenings in December of 2016. Always wearing his own Wanderers jacket, Kaufman is clearly pleased as punch with his film, and the fact that it’s finding audiences after all these years. Author Richard Price (Freedomland, Clockers) and several cast members also participate, bringing even more fun memories of making the film to the table. There’s also a 30+ minute Bronx location tour with Price, showing off not just where the movie was filmed, but his actual teen stomping ground that inspired the novel.
While The Wanderers may not quite measure up to other films of its ilk nor the very best work Kaufman has made (that being Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff, and perhaps The Unbearable Lightness of Being), the movie plays extremely well, and welcomes repeated viewings. It’s great that The Wanderers has wandered back into the cultural spotlight. Thanks to this excellent Blu-Ray set, fans will never need to worry about it settling down. It truly is The Wanderers forever.