When “The Wanderers” strutted into U.S. theaters on July 13, 1979, audiences stayed away, opting for the more familiar pleasures of “Rocky 2” and “Moonraker” and “The Muppet Movie.” On the surface, Philip Kaufman’s comic drama about a group of Italian-American teenagers growing up in the Bronx in 1963 seemed too similar to “The Warriors,” Walter Hill’s drama about contemporary New York City street gangs, which had come out four months earlier (even the titles of the two films seemed interchangeable).
“The Warriors” had been a hit, but it also spawned three gang-related shootings and stabbings in just its first week of release, prompting distributor Paramount Pictures to offer extra security to theaters for free. “The Wanderers” suffered from the association, earning only $5 million at the box office.
But the comparison was unfair. “The Wanderers” isn’t really about street gangs. The film is set during the death throes of 1950s-era doo-wop innocence: Vietnam, the Rolling Stones and the Civil Rights Movement’s “rising tide of discontent” would soon blow up and change the country. Beefs were still settled with fists, not bullets. The characters band together by ethnicity — Italian, Irish, African-American, Asian — and demonstrate their brotherhood by wearing identical jackets, the sort of thing “Grease” had mocked just a year prior. “The Wanderers” takes these kids seriously, though.
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The movie was based on the novel by Richard Price, who would go on to write “Clockers” and HBO’s “The Night Of.” Price wrote the book when he was 24, and Kaufman and his wife Rose stayed true to his youthful, earnest spirit when writing the screenplay, resisting the deep-seated cynicism that had become the norm in 1970s American cinema. The movie is gloriously, defiantly corny.
It’s also spirited and rambunctious, shot and edited in a style that invokes comic-book panels and pop art. The sequence that opens the movie, in which two Wanderers (John Friedrich and Alan Rosenberg) are chased through the streets by members of the rival Fordham Baldies gang, could have come out of a Marvel Studios superhero picture.
Another sequence, in which the Wanderers get lost in a neighborhood ruled by the murderous Ducky Boys (the only truly vicious gang in the movie), plays like a Val Lewton horror film.
When was the last time you saw such a thoroughly uninhibited and go-for-broke American movie?”
Film critic Michael Sragow on “The Wanderers”
The movie is suffused with pop hits from the era — The Four Seasons, The Shirelles, The Isley Brothers, Dion — but it’s not a jukebox soundtrack. Kaufman uses songs the way Martin Scorsese does, to inform and shape his protagonists and the world they live in. “The Wanderers” is nostalgic and romanticized, but it also feels thrilling and new, nearly 40 years after it was made.
Kaufman decided to make “The Wanderers” without any famous stars — another factor that worked against the film at the box office, but has helped it endure. Scott Rudin, who would go on to become a heavyweight Oscar-winning producer (“No Country For Old Men,” “The Social Network”) served as the casting director for “The Wanderers.” He discovered Ken Wahl, who stars as the sensible, level-headed Richie, while the aspiring actor was working as a pizza deliveryman.
The movie is male-centric, but its three female characters are uniformly strong. A pre-“Raiders of the Lost Ark” Karen Allen plays a girl who steals Richie’s heart; Toni Kalem plays his sympathetic but overly accommodating girlfriend; and an unrecognizable Linda Manz (“Days of Heaven”) is a pint-sized tomboy whose hulking boyfriend, Terror, is the most ferocious member of the Baldies.
Although it failed in the U.S., “The Wanderers” was a big hit overseas (especially in Germany and the U.K.), grossing $18 million, a rarity for a movie so steeped in Americana. Kaufman, who was coming off the critically-admired remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” would go on to direct several high-profile pictures, including “The Right Stuff” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” But no movie in his body of work generates the same level of affection and loyalty.
The director’s cut of the film, which reinstated six minutes of footage that amplified gay subtexts, premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1995 and was released theatrically in 1996. The new 2K restoration that will play in theaters around the U.S. between now and the spring will be released on Blu-ray in 2017 — further proof of the movie’s undying legacy.
Film scholar Annette Insdorf, who wrote the book-length career study “Philip Kaufman,” believes part of the reason for the film’s continuing popularity is that it was ahead of its time, despite its period-era trappings.
“Long before the advent of music videos, [Kaufman] skillfully juxtaposes visual action with the most effective rhythm, melody, lyrics and orchestration — especially when we hear Dion’s ‘The Wanderer’ as the guys strut down the street,” she says. “Pop songs of the 1960s not only establish the time frame and engender the pulse of scenes; they also evoke nostalgia for those who were American teenagers in the early 1960s.”
Another element that has kept “The Wanderers” from disappearing is the movie’s unruly spirit — a reflection of the characters as well as Kaufman’s shrewd and sometimes daring sense of humor.
“When was the last time you saw such a thoroughly uninhibited and go-for-broke American movie?” says veteran film critic Michael Sragow. ‘“The Wanderers’ is that and more: a movie about growing up absurd in urban America that wrings humor and drama and even audience identification from rites of passage as clueless as ‘elbow-titting’ and from tribal frictions that include a scurrilous and hilarious bout of name-calling.
“The movie comes from an era before ‘microaggressions’ and ‘trigger warnings.’ It embodies an earlier radical attitude that the best way for Americans to stumble towards maturity is to lay bare their most disreputable secrets and mess with them.”
What: 2K restoration of “The Wanderers” followed by a Q&A via Skype with director Philip Kaufman, moderated by Miami Herald movie critic Rene Rodriguez.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday Nov. 22.
Where: Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave.
Tickets:$11.75 ($10 seniors/students/military. Click here or call 786-385-9689.