No other film released 25 years ago, and few made since, captured the crosscurrents of a single neighborhood on a sweltering summer day in late 20th-century America the way Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" did.
Lee's brash masterwork still plays like gangbusters — with an audience or watching it solo. (At press time, Lee planned to introduce a 25th anniversary screening last week at Roger Ebert's Film Festival, known informally as Ebertfest, the Champaign event founded by the late critic.)
Confined to a single day leading to a deadly street clash between African-Americans and Italian-Americans in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the film was based on a notorious 1986 incident taking place in the Howard Beach, Queens, neighborhood. Lee's film, as richly colored visually as it is provocative and multidirectional in its points of view, responded directly to recent tragic events. It is Lee's masterwork, probably for always.
"Do the Right Thing" was a financial success, though a long way from the biggest film of the summer of '89. "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" took No. 1 that year, followed by Tim Burton's "Batman." Was "Do the Right Thing" recognized by the Academy Awards as the best film of that year? No. It wasn't even nominated in the best picture category. "Driving Miss Daisy" was, and "Driving Miss Daisy" won.
That film can be described as the cozy opposite of "Do the Right Thing" in terms of aesthetics, politics, just about every "-ics" you can name.
Today, "Do the Right Thing" feels like the American film of the summer of '89, and '89, period, whatever the ledgers and the Oscars had to say about it. It's a snapshot of its time, yet beyond surface topicality it's a movie that got people talking, arguing. They still argue about it.
Each summer movie season sends forth from its ranks a movie that seems to represent where audiences were, and what they were into. Will any film in the summer of 2014 spark conversations the way Lee's film did? Perhaps, in a gentler vein, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," 12 clandestine years in the making. It's already a success on the international festival circuit.
Perhaps the film of the summer of 2014 will be the Wachowskis' science fiction fantasy "Jupiter Ascending," grand and ambitious enough — one can only hope! — to make "Cloud Atlas" look like a piker. Perhaps the film of the summer will be one of many, many sequels and reboots, ranging from "22 Jump Street" to "Transformers: Age of Extinction." The emblematic film of a given summer, remember, isn't always the biggest hit or the best movie.
Let's look back at the quarter-century preceding this moment in 2014, and consider some key summer movies in five-year jumps. These are titles that spoke to, and of, their times.
1994: "The Lion King"
In 1994 Disney's animation kingdom was a powerhouse, having built on the momentum generated by "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." "Beauty and the Beast" was the first to make the jump to the theater; the hardy fairy tale, newly tricked out with fetching songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, made a successful, if conventional, transition to the Broadway stage in 1994.
And then came "The Lion King," with songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. The story, for a change, wasn't based on any one folk tale or myth; rather, it gathered up dozens of influences — "Hamlet," even — and reprocessed them into something new. The movie ruled the multiplexes and the VCRs and, later, DVD players worldwide. It was a fearsomely large success, putting audiences young, old and in-between through the emotional wringer. (The review in The New Yorker imagined an entire generation of American children going into therapy because of Simba's travails.)
Though it's still No. 1 when the box-office figures are adjusted for inflation, "The Lion King" has since been eclipsed at the gate by the billion-dollar babies "Toy Story 3" and "Frozen." Somewhere, right now, this second, a million preteens are singing separate a cappella versions of "Let It Go," the hit song from "Frozen." In the summer of '94 the inescapable song was "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"
While "Frozen" owes a lot to the templates and knotty female-centric relationships driving the Broadway musical "Wicked," it's also unthinkable without the broad scope and something-for-everyone-ness of "The Lion King."
1999: "The Blair Witch Project"
Before "Paranormal Activity," before dozens of 21st-century "found footage" horror movies came along to scare us or die trying, there was this little number about a young woman and two associates who venture into a witchy patch of Maryland forest in order to chronicle, with a video camera, any signs of the titular specter.
Essentially the world's first extended cinematic selfie, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. A pioneering Web-based marketing campaign sucked people in, promising a rough-hewn artifact, something horrible and authentic and real-esque. Now everybody and their sister knows the tropes and strategies of found-footage thrills, thanks to the "Paranormal Activity" franchise, "Cloverfield" and so many more. This is the movie that kicked slickness and classically styled scares to the curb. The sequel flopped.
2004: "Spider-Man 2"
The unofficial 2014 summer movie season begins May 2 with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," bringing back Andrew Garfield in the role of Peter Parker. (Emma Stone, his co-star, is the toast of the reviews already; the film's been out for a few weeks in several overseas territories.) Back in 2004, were people expecting the moon from "Spider-Man 2," the second big-screen collaboration of director Sam Raimi and stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst? Maybe some were. The first "Spider-Man" was a big popular success. But this was the rare sequel exceeding the qualities and impact of its immediate predecessor, no little thanks to Alfred Molina's Doc Ock, a villain both vividly cartoonish and realistically threatening.
If the new "Spidey 2" has half the panache of its 2004 equivalent, there will be a lot of gratified superhero freaks geeking out and pre-ordering the Blu-ray. That comes out in September, by the way.
2009: "The Hangover"
Five years ago, Disney/Pixar's "Up" soared, completing a remarkable and unpredictable animated trio (with "Wall•E" and "Ratatouille") unrivaled in recent commercial mainstream entertainment. That summer also brought us "The Hurt Locker," Kathryn Bigelow's fierce narrative feature, the key American drama alongside Bigelow's more recent "Zero Dark Thirty" to deal in persuasive, clear-eyed dramatic terms with the U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the murky wake of 9/11.
And yet "The Hangover" was, and is, the summer of '09's success story.
Nothing new here, folks. Move along. But they didn't move along. They went, and went, and went back. Crude, weirdly violent, blithely patronizing to women both saintly (Heather Graham's prostitute) and heinous (Rachael Harris' shrewy wife of the dentist played by Ed Helms), the comedy about a Vegas bachelor party gone wrong became the hard-R-rated raunchfest nice couples decided it was OK to see.
Why? Because it affirmed all the usual home-and-hearth values while letting Zach Galifianakis push his luck on the margins. Because Bradley Cooper was cute. And mostly because of that end-credits sequence, the film's sole flourish and goodwill ambassador, revealing in a series of outlandishly explicit photographs what really happened the previous night. The "Hangover" sequels were terrible and terrible, respectively, and audiences knew it, yet they went. They were invested. They were already reliving their youthful enthusiasm for what came earlier. Hollywood comedies quickly embraced the "Hangover" brand of hostility, brutality and occasional unearned pathos.
And here we are, a week prior to the unofficial "Spidey 2" launch of the summer of 2014, wondering which movie on the horizon will be the most "Hangover"-prone in its approach to gang comedy.
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