Classic Corner: Baby It’s You

It’s only 85 miles from Sarah Lawrence College to Jill Rosen’s hometown of Trenton, NJ. Yet the distance might as well be measured in lightyears. The year is 1966, but “the sixties” haven’t made it out to certain parts of New Jersey yet. Jill’s pleated skirts and knee socks are holdovers from an earlier era of girl groups and Life Magazine, as is the borrowed hot rod driven by her ardent new suitor. His name is Albert Capadilupo, but everybody calls him Sheik. Too suave to be a greaser, he stands a head taller than all the other teeny-boppers and dresses like one of the Four Seasons. They whisper about him in the halls; everyone seems to have a different story about how Sheik got expelled from St. Joe’s. Whatever the reason, he’s here now and he’s got his eye on Jill. She’s a doctor’s daughter headed off to college in the fall, the kind of nice Jewish girl who would normally never get mixed up with a juvenile delinquent from the wrong side of the tracks. (Especially not one so… Italian.) And yet there’s something about Sheik’s persistence that makes her smile.

Writer-director John Sayles’s Baby It’s You starts out like a familiar high school romance where we think we know the players. An incandescent Rosanna Arquette stars as Jill, the buttoned-up good girl who can’t help falling for our brooding bad boy, played by Vincent Spano. The film hits all the expected beats of this timeworn genre, culminating in Jill and Sheik having a big blowout argument and breaking up right before the prom. If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you’ll be impatiently waiting for the inevitable climactic reconciliation on the dance floor in front of all their classmates. Except it never happens. Sheik gets in trouble with the cops and skips town, headed for Miami Beach. Jill goes stag to the prom, then off to college. We’re only halfway through the movie.

So much more than a tale of lovestruck teens, Baby It’s You is a sad and sometimes uncomfortably perceptive picture about the gaps between who we are and the people we wish we were. It’s telling that both Jill and Sheik share dreams of performing. She wants to be an actress, he a nightclub crooner, and the film is tough enough to show us that neither are particularly gifted. Jill may have starred in all the school plays back home in Trenton, but at Sarah Lawrence they’re teaching Stanislavski and she can’t get cast in anything. Meanwhile, down in Miami, Sheik works six nights a week as a dishwasher so that on his evening off the owner will let him practice his “act” – i.e. lip-syncing to Frank Sinatra records for bored retirees. Sheik can’t even sing.

Arquette has never been better than when she’s struggling at Sarah Lawrence, drinking too much and trying on different personalities in a vain effort to blend in with her WASP classmates (including a baby Matthew Modine and an absolutely savage Tracy Pollan, who’s like an Edith Wharton villainess that can also shoot pool). Jill was used to being a big fish in a pond she’d never realized was so small, which is what happens to a lot of us when we get to college.

I go back and forth on Spano’s performance. At first he doesn’t seem as magnetic as he should be, but then the whole point of the character is that he’s kind of a letdown. What makes Baby It’s You so special is that it’s not a movie about Jill and Sheik getting back together, but rather the two of them learning to accept how much they meant to each other and moving on with their lives. First loves rarely last forever, but at least these two finally get to go to the prom. Sort of.

Sayles’s screenplay was based on a semi-autobiographical short story by producer Amy Robinson. Most of us remember her as Charlie’s girlfriend from Mean Streets, but behind the scenes in the 1980s, Robinson and her producing partner Griffin Dunne’s were responsible for a remarkable run of intelligent, idiosyncratic pictures, starting with Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, then Baby It’s You, followed by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty. The only thing these movies have in common is their excellence. Well, that and the fact that none of them exactly lit up the box office, yet have grown considerably in estimation over the years.

Baby It’s You was Sayles’s third feature, his first and last for a major studio. When Paramount execs saw the grosses for Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, they tried re-cutting it into a typical teenage sex comedy. But the footage –not to mention the filmmaker—resisted such a reading. The frustrated studio wound up releasing Sayles’s version of the picture with barely any advertising. He’s been an indie stalwart ever since.

Fittingly for a movie about first love, there were a lot of first times here. Baby It’s You was the first American film shot by legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Fresh off 15 movies with the recently deceased Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German lenser would go on to shoot After Hours for Robinson and Dunne, beginning an incredible creative partnership with Scorsese (highlights of which include but are not limited to The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence and The Departed.) Baby It’s You was also the first credited role for a charming young actor named Robert Downey, Jr., but alas, he’s barely visible in the final cut. 

The film was also the first to use the music of Bruce Springsteen. On a recent episode of the delightful Watch With Jen podcast, Dunne talked to host Jen Johans about being “an autodidact music supervisor” before such a job existed, back when licensing pop songs wasn’t a cottage industry unto itself. The Baby It’s You soundtrack is such a wall-to-wall barrage of hits it’s almost comical, boasting, in addition to Bruce, Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, The Righteous Brothers, Procol Harum, The Supremes, Simon and Garfunkel, The Isley Brothers, and most amusingly, The Velvet Underground, whose “Venus in Furs” scares the crap out of Jill’s stoned roommate. Dunne claims he amassed the rights by cold-calling a lot of the artists himself, infuriating certain record company reps to the point of apoplexy. But when it came time to ask the Boss, he says Sayles was the one who picked up the phone.

The mutual lovefest between the bard of Factorytown, NJ and the denim-clad director from Schenectady, NY should have surprised nobody. (Sayles went on to helm the videos for “Glory Days,” “I’m On Fire,” and “Born in the U.S.A.”) I realize that Springsteen songs recorded in the 1970s are technically anachronistic to the time period of Baby It’s You, but it sure doesn’t feel that way when Sheik struts into the cafeteria backed by the opening growl of “It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City.” Besides, Sayles and Springsteen’s sensibilities are so simpatico it’s impossible to imagine this movie without his music. Both artists share a complex understanding of the American experience in all its maddening contradictions, plus enormous affinities for characters like Jill and Sheik, regular folks whose lives are full and have stories worth telling, even as their dreams remain stubbornly out of reach. 

“Baby It’s You” is streaming on Paramount+.

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