Having worked a number of blue collar jobs before making his way into films, John Sayles is a talented filmmaker who never fails to find the poignancy in the mundane. His films are very human and relatable because they focus on the people themselves and the emotions that stem from characterization. Baby It’s You is the third film from Sayles and it would be his only studio funded project. He fought the whole way to get his cut made and in return the studio did a minimal job of promoting it. Due to the music rights the film is just now making its way onto DVD and a bare bones release at that, thanks Paramount. Regardless, I am glad to finally be able to watch this film which offers a unique, albeit uneven, take on a coming-of-age romance.
Rosanna Arquette really shines in her first major role as Jill Rosen, the smart, aspiring actress who comes from a middle class Jewish family. In her last year of high school she meets the “Shiek” (Vincent Spano) a slick and handsome young man who lives by his own rules. Shiek comes from a blue collar Italian family and his only aspiration is to not end up like his working stiff father. If you sense a star-crossed lover story coming on, you’d be correct, but don’t worry, thankfully Sayles knows better than to follow the same old formulaic story line.
While the two young lovers do become involved in a heated romance, it works more as a driving force behind the transformations of the characters, namely Jill. She handles the pressure of her senior year and the cynicism surrounding her relationship with Shiek with surprising maturity. It becomes apparent that he needs her much more than she needs him, because despite his Frank Sinatra facade and his seeming overflow of confidence, he is terrified of falling into normalcy. Jill isn’t much better off, she doesn’t know what she wants, but she does at least know what general direction she wants to take her life in the hopes that this will bring her closer to finding herself. The high school period comes to a dramatic close with Jill consoling a friend after an attempted suicide and Shiek fleeing the police after an armed robbery, a symbolic and apropos loss of innocence leading them into the real world.
The college section of the film causes it to lose a considerable amount of steam. It starts to meander from point to point, glossing over some of the more interesting elements for the sake of (sometimes forced) character development. Jill goes from being one of the popular kids to an outsider on campus and the transition is awkward. Shiek ends up lip singing Frank Sinatra songs at a third rate club in Florida while holding on firmly to the naive hopes that he’ll get his big break. By the end of the film they accept the fact that they’ve grown apart, but they also realize that they’re connected because they are outsiders and because of where they come from and that connection ends up being stronger than their differences.
Now with me, a film can do a lot to redeem itself if it uses music cleverly and effectively…Baby It’s You does both. With a title like that, it would be a disappointment to not include songs that are a staples of the time period. We get “Wooly Bully”, “Surfin’ Bird”, “Unchained Melody”, among others, and it works to bring out the nostalgia of the ’60s. But what really stands out is the anachronistic use of Bruce Springsteen to not only serve as a timeless voice of New Jersey but to also accentuate the raw sexuality of the Sheik. When he enters the cafeteria to talk to Jill for the first time, Sayles blasts Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and it’s pure magic. Mixing time periods can be risky, but it almost always hits the right note for me. Some may scoff at the lack of realism, but film is about the emotions and the experience and ,when used properly, music can be a very effective tool for both.
Baby It’s You may not be a great film or even one of Sayles best, but there’s no denying the talent is there. Rosanna Arquette proves herself as a leading actress and truly embodies the character of Jill, making her growth human and believable. Vincent Spano charms the hell out of the screen with his stunning good looks and natural intensity. With only his third film, Sayles already shows the versatility and range that will help make his career such a great one. Really, the film only fails when it overreaches itself and loses focus in the second half. Otherwise it’s an entertaining and heartfelt romance that takes some chances and tries something different.