Label: Twilight Time
Released: January 20, 2015
Genre: Drama / Comedy / Sports
Synopsis: Classic coming-of-age of a final summer before adult responsibilities will separate four college guys.
Special Features: / Audio commentary with actor Dennis Christopher, film historian Julie Kirgo, and producer Nick Redman / Isolated stereo music track / Bonus commentary (audio only): “Dennis Christopher’s Fellini Story” (12:53) / Theatrical Trailer / 2 TV trailers (“Road to Adulthood” + Academy Booster”) / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
Dubbed by one of the film’s actors as a production akin to ‘catching lightening in a bottle’ and transcending box office odds by being unconventional and critically and financially successful, Breaking Away is also the classic sleeper hit – a movie that few expected would become not only popular, but remain beloved more that 35 years since its theatrical release.
The reasons lie in its perfect DNA: a straightforward narrative of four college aged guys – a cyclist (California Dreaming‘s Dennis Christopher), a football has-been (Dennis Quaid), a nothing (Daniel Stern in his film debut), and a squirt with a mature life goals of marriage / job / family (Jackie Earle Haley) – whose friendships are already being challenged by adult responsibilities; honest but never earnest dialogue by Steve Tesich; a director whose background as a race car driver ensured two cycling tournaments would remain absolutely perfect examples of sports montage; and a cast of then unknowns who filled in their roles without any wrinkles.
The music score (quite bravely) consists of lively Italian classical and opera excerpts, and when the races are on, Yates often sticks with a simple sound design using the peddling, tires-on-asphalt, and panting cyclists instead of score, pop songs, and attention-deficit editing. Breaking Away isn’t visually dull – Yates knows action, having directed the kinetic films Bullitt (1968) and Robbery (1967) – because the camera is always moving in tandem with the cyclists, deeply embedded in the race or training sessions (which are also quite intense).
One also senses Yates gravitated to the film because his last box office blockbuster – The Deep (1977) – was a narratively dull, shallow character piece, the kind of big studio project which was designed to please audiences with scenery and wet t-shirts instead of staying true to Tesich’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story.
Audio co-commentator Julie Kirgo points out the small town America – Bloomington, Indiana – is obviously presented as a near-ideal, but college town rowdiness and a central bully (Hart Bochner) are still there, and the human behaviour (bowling alley brawl accepted) is not only believable, but timeless. Hairstyles aside, the characters in Tesich’s Oscar-winning script could be anyone at any given time.
What’s especially smart about the film, and something akin to classic seventies dramaturgy, is to present conflicts as subtle and natural. Moocher (Haley) is poor, but his unstable economic situation is presented visually instead of a ‘poor-me’ speech; Cyril (Stern) is a nice, decent wastrel, but his quiet self-concern over a likely solo life comes through nervous smiles, and a finale where unlike his victorious teammates, there’s no one to congratulate him; and former college football star Mike (Quaid) is ornery, loud, drives recklessly, and doesn’t hold back in his contempt for the young college stars being churned out yearly by the university… but he doesn’t beat anyone up, because when he’s not posturing, he’s observing in silent suffering as younger guys live out his fantasy dream of playing football with bright prospects.
Dave Stoller (Christopher) is both athletic and comedic, and the humour of him driving his parents crazy from an intense Italian fixation is eventually tempered with a gradual shift towards drama, as Dave realizes the only way to tackle a dream is to take a risky gamble, and go for broke.
Tesich’s story has humour, but there’s some mature subtext that every once in a while materializes, as when Dave’s father Ray (Paul Dooley), a former stone cutter-turned used car salesman, tours the university campus with Dave and explains why he harbours a loathing of institutions, and tells his son to avoid making the same mistakes.
Dave’s love affair with Katherine (Galactica 1980’s Robyn Douglass) is simple and predictable, but their puppy love similarly breaks apart as life paths pull them away, although during her final exchange she tells him not to sell himself short, and expect big things in the near future.
Breaking Away walks a very fine line in being light yet affecting, inspirational but not proselytizing, and Christopher is right in regarding the film as lightening in a bottle, because the movie was made by creative minds wanting to make an honest picture, not a vessel to sell a soundtrack album and merchandise.
The irony is how Tesich would later repackaged the concept of a cycling drama, the trials of adulthood, and humour into American Flyers (1985), a work so fully conventional that it’s quite baffling to place the two films side-by-side and see continuity.
Breaking Away was spun off into a critically successful 1980 TV series that lasted all but 8 episodes, and while the series (which regrouped the three supporting actors + Shaun Cassidy as Dave) has vanished from distribution, the film’s release on DVD in 2003 was celebrated by fans. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a crisp transfer and fine mono sound mix, and Patrick Williams’ score – mostly classical arrangements – is isolated in nice stereo.
The commentary track between film historian Kirgo, producer Nick Redman, and star Dennis Christopher covers the entire production of the film, and there’s a small ‘bonus’ recollection, in which Christopher describes how he (incredibly) got to appear in two Frederico Fellini films after bumming off to Italy on a spontaneous jaunt.
Among the stellar cast are Barbara Barrie as Dave’s mom (earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar Nomination for her work), and P.J. Soles (then married to Quaid) in a small role. The Bloomington locations are superb, and Matthew Leonetti’s cinematography often fills the screen with some beautiful magic hour shots and outstanding racing footage. Dooley’s never been better in a role that’s never cartoonish, and Christopher is perfectly cast as a buoyant, focused cyclist willing to push himself as hard as possible and prove his detractors wrong.
Steve Tesich’s other original and adapted screenplays include Eyewitness (1981) for Yates, Four Friends (1981), The World According to Garp (1982), American Flyers (1985), and Eleni (1985) for Yates again.
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review