Johnny Suede

USA | 1991 | Directed by Tom DiCillo

Logline: A naïve and immature young man with aspirations of being a country-rock star receives a few lessons in life and love while strutting around in his newly acquired blue suede shoes.

“John had just about everything: the look, the hair, the clothes … everything, except one thing … shoes. And this made him feel incomplete. As if he lacked one final crucial thing. Like a car without wheels, like a rocket without fuel … Like a man without shoes. Everyone else seemed to have it, everyone else seemed complete, everyone except him. So he kept looking for this one thing, night after night, wandering, searching … This is the story of what happened when he found it.”

“You Freak Storm, huh?”

“That’s right. I’ve seen you before. What’s your name?”

“Johnny. Johnny Suede …”

“Nice shoes you have there, Johnny.”

“Thanks. I like your boots. Where did you get them?”

“I found them when I was living in Wyoming.”

“What were you doing in Wyoming?”

“I’ve been all over, man.”

“Me too.”

“Yeah? I was born in a goddamned motel room.”

“Really? Your dad was a traveling salesman?”

“Daddy? I don’t know too much about my daddy, man, except he was shot minutes after I was born.”

“Wow, you’re kiddin?”

“No, I am not fucking kidding. Even tried to write a song about it, once, but I just didn’t finish it. It goes like this … I was born in a motel room/When my daddy lost his job/Just after one/He pulled a gun/And blew his brains out/They call me mamma/They call me mamma/The call me mamma’s boy, but I don’t care/I’ll be a mamma, I’ll be a mamma’s boy/Since daddy got the electric chair!

Such is the style of sardonic sense of humour found in this unique and memorable exercise in drifting oneiric style. Tom DiCillo had previously been a cinematographer on Jim Jarmusch’s first two features (Permanent Vacation and Stranger than Paradise) before adopting Jim’s sense of deadpan visual comedy and applying his own narrative sensibilities. With Johnny Suede there’s more than just a nod toward another great American stylist of sardonic humour floating in a dream nightmare; Mr. David Lynch.

Brad Pitt is Johnny Suede and the movie was released the same year as Thelma and Louise which made Pitt a household name. Curiously the two characters are of a similar ilk; they’re not the sharpest blades in the drawer, a coupla southerners lookin’ for a break. As the eponymous guitar-crooner with his immense pompadour and retro threads Pitt is curiously endearing. Apparently DiCillo’s producer wanted Timothy Hutton, but DiCillo insisted on Pitt, but later regretted Pitt’s interpretation, so much so that in his brilliant satire Living in Oblivion DiCillo based the arrogant, cocksure actor (played by James Le Gros) on Pitt himself.

The movie as a whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a mood piece with great cinematic textures and a delicately delirious atmosphere. The music – especially the main theme – composed by Jim Farmer is deeply evocative and resonates long after the final image of Johnny Suede’s shoe perched on the roof of the car, as it drives off down the street into the sunrise. But it’s not just the music and Brad Pitt and Tom DiCillo’s colourful palette and deliberately staged location shooting, it’s the key support cast that shines just as bright; Catherine Keener as Yvonne is darn wonderful, Alison Moir as oddball Darlette, a sandwich or two short of a picnic, is a rare gem, and Nick Cave is hilarious as Freak Storm, the cowboy in white … is he a genuine angel or a demon in disguise? And just what is it with that weirdo in the tux (Richard Boes) who keeps turning up with Darlette?

Yes, Johnny Seude is very much like a strange dream. Some of it works a treat, other bits leave you somewhat baffled, but like all good strange dreams, there’s just enough of the sexycrazycool stuff to make you wanna have that dream again. And again.