Johnny Swede (1991): Tom DiCillo’s Promising Debut, Starring Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener

Tom DiCillo had worked as Jim Jarmusch’s cinematographer on his first two pictures, Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law.

However, the comic-nightmarish quality of his debut, Johnny Suede, is less influenced by Jarmusch than by David Lynch. The film’s hero is an Eraserhead-like James Dean, sporting a huge pompadour–and the tale’s Brooklyn (black and white) exteriors have the menacing feel of the kind of German Expressionism evoked by Lynch.

As the “Village Voice” critic Jim Hoberman pointed out, DiCillo borrows devices from other indie directors: Jarmusch’s deliberate pacing, John Waters’ retro kitsch, Lynch’s camp and midgets. A stylish exercise in cool, Johnny Suede assumes its place along other films that took their titles from symbolically evocative textures–Polyester, Blue Velvet.

Combining hard-edge cynicism with compassion, Johnny Suede looks like a cartoon, but it’s serious enough to raise intriguing questions, specifically men’s deep fears of women and anxieties upon meeting them.

DiCillo populates an urban wasteland, Long Island City, with retro icons of pop culture, casting Gilligan’s Island‘s star, Tina Louise, as a record producer. H also quotes the 1938 all-midget musical Western, The Terror of Tiny Town, which is shown on television.

In a role that suggests James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Ricky Nelson, DiCillo crafts a lyrical portrait of a wannabe, a good-natured poseur mythically named Johnny.

Mixing sight gags with deadpan humor, Johnny Suede works its magic as a fairy tale about a man who has to lose one shoe in order to find his true identity.

Conveying a 1950s zeitgeist, the film centers on a talentless youngster aspiring to become a teenage idol. Johnny starts with the basics–a monstrous lacquered pompadour, black and white clothes, and a steel guitar. He lives in a ratty tenement where he sits around strumming the guitar, dreaming about forming a band with his sidekick Keke (Calvin Levels), who also sports an elaborate coif–a tangle of off kilter deadlocks.

While painting apartments to make a living, the duo fantasize of being onstage mobbed by throngs of adoring fans. Standing in front of the mirror with his hand provocatively in his underwear, Johnny practices Nelson’s “Some People Call Me a Teenage Idol.”

In Johnny Suede, like the Downtown milieu that inspired it, everyone is an aspiring star. Johnny’s only friend, an airhead musician (rocker Nick Cave) with a platinum pompadour, is both a more degenerate and a more successful version of Johnny.  Even the landlord breaks into a mockingly toneless dirge when he comes to collect the overdue rent.

Johnny’s a loner. He wanders around half-naked in his apartment–when he goes out to a nightclub he takes with him the same self-absorption. Johnny ambles dreamily and innocently through life. The film’s running joke is that whenever Johnny gets lost in his dreams, reality smacks him in the face.

At first, Johnny dates Darlette (Alison Moir), a willfully vapid girl who’s as lost as he is. She brings the befuddled Johnny up to her pink ultra femme pad in order to read him inspirational poetry. When Darlette dumps him, Johnny agonizes in a lizards and shattering glass nightmare sequence.

Things change when he meets Yvonne (Catherine Keener), an older, smarter girl, who works as a teacher for mentally challenged children; by implication, Johnny becomes one of them.

The hard-boiled Yvonne cuts through Johnny’s solipsism, and it’s in their interactions that the movie becomes a poignant satire of male-female relationships. Yvonne has to instruct Johnny about women’s sexuality, their anatomy, how to make love, where exactly to touch. She challenges his inherent misogyny, instilling in his “teenage heart” greater maturity, and under her guidance, he begins to feel and show real emotions.

The film’s cumulative effect is that of a synthesis of Downtown New York indies of the 1980s. Johnny lives in one of those timeless cinematic communities, with no specific dress codes–the movie could have taken place in another era.

The streets are always empty, until, suddenly, like a gift from God, a pair of suede loafers fall from heaven with the power to transform Johnny’s life. But, first, Johnny has to lose one shoe in order to feel a sense of loss. The film ends logically and happily, depicting a heartfelt reunion between boy and shoe.

Made on a very low budget ($500,00o), Johnny Swede played at the Locarno and Toronto Film Fest, before getting a limited theatrical release by Miramax.

Cast

Brad Pitt as Johnny Swede

Michael Luciano as Mr. Clep

Calvin Levels as Dek

Nick Cave as Freak Stor

Wilfredo Giovanni Clark as Slick

Alison Moir as Darlett

Peter McRobbie as Flip Doub

Ron Vawter as Winsto

Dennis Parlato as Dalto

Tina Louise as Mrs. Fontain

Catherine Keener as Yvonne

Tom Jarmusch as Cona

Samuel L. Jackson as B-Bo

Ashley Gardner as Ellen

Credits:

Produced by Yoram Mandel and Ruth Waldburger

Running time: 97 Minutes