Dog Days Are Over: Lee Examines Conflict and Crisis in “Summer of Sam” | Blu-ray Review
Without a doubt, Spike Lee is one of the most notable contemporary American filmmakers of the last thirty years. His masterpieces, uneven as some of them might even be, often concerned marked intersections of Black Americans and Italian Americans in various neighborhoods and boroughs of New York. Whether they’re formidable time capsules which remain relevant today such as Do the Right Thing (read review) or those forged in archaic cultural trappings of their time such as Jungle Fever (1991), Lee’s always got something compelling to present. His forays into period tend to fluctuate more drastically, with high points such as Malcolm X (1993) and BlacKkKlansman (2018) towering above less revered items such as Miracle at Saint Anna (2008). But one of his most divisive presentations was 1999’s Summer of Sam, set during the sweltering summer of 1977 New York City and focusing on a closely related group of denizens of an Italian-American Bronx neighborhood as David Berkowitz engages in his infamous serial killing spree. With the Black perspective taking a drastic backseat to the proceedings (which probably would have been a better focal point), Lee’s examination of the transition from disco to punk plays like a Scorsese film wherein its maker is perhaps fascinated by this particular community but has a begrudging regard for them.
With the Son of Sam (Michael Badalucco) terrorizing New York whilst the city is simultaneously plagued by black outs and sweltering temperatures, a tight-knit Italian-American neighborhood in the Northeast Bronx is suffering its own meltdown. Richie (Adrien Brody), who has adopted a faux British accent for his new punk persona, returns home to live with his mother (Patti Lupone) and her new boyfriend (Mike Starr), resuming his friendship with Vinny (John Leguizamo) while being rejected by his old peers. Meanwhile, Vinny’s marriage to Dionna (Mira Sorvino) suffers from miscommunication and adultery instigated by repressed desires in the fluctuating cultural climate, and a near scrape with David Berkowitz finds him at the center of a local search for the notorious killer.
Lee’s Summer of Sam premiered in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes and was co-written by Victor Colicchio and actor Michael Imperioli (also in the cast) and plays like a jumbled mess of themes and visual aesthetics. Lensed by Ellen Kuras (a favorite of Rebecca Miller and Michel Gondry, who was DP on Lee’s doc 4 Little Girls and the feature He Got Game), Lee employs a variety of fluctuating visual shifts and aspect ratios, including a musical montage set to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” which mirrors something similar to a sequence in 1994’s Crooklyn.
But the result never quite pays off, with stilted dialoguing plaguing otherwise fine performances from Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo while Adrien Brody’s sexually fluid punk rocker is presented in a way which feels as if its creators were a bit unenlightened about the queer community in this period (or any other). Berkowitz is a phenomenal idea to explore as a foreboding backdrop (which would be used more effectively in Alistair Banks Griffin’s 2019 title The Wolf Hour) but Michael Badalucco’s performance as the serial killer is increasingly distracting and corny, which hits its zenith with the CGI speaking black dog voiced by John Turturro.
A cavalcade of incredible cast members do make for interesting highlights, as with most of Lee’s productions, some distracting and some interesting, including Patti Lupone, Bebe Neuwirth, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Anthony LaPaglia, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ben Gazarra and Mike Starr (here feeling like a poor man’s Danny Aiello).
Film Rating: ★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆