Like so many of Spike Lee’s movies, Summer of Sam is simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic. At one level, he’s telling the story of his beloved New York City, and if you were to extend NYC to mean “America,” I don’t think he’d object. On another level, though, this is the story of the boroughs … everything seems very local, every one in a particular neighborhood knows every one else, and the general perspective of the residents is very closed. This ignites one of the key disputes in the film, when Adrien Brody’s Richie becomes a punk rocker, which to his disco-loving Italian buddies means he might as well be from Mars.
Lee writes what he knows here, and his feel for the neighborhoods seems comfortably accurate. It is probably important that his co-writers are Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, both Italian-Americans … the characters feel real, and Lee has shown some good work in this area in the past, so whoever gets the credit, the ambiance is effective.
Of course, the film takes place during the time when serial killer Son of Sam is terrorizing New York City. This places the characters within a very specific time and place. Lee doesn’t have much, if anything, to say about David Berkowitz … the Son of Sam is used only to amplify the heat of the moment, creating a special environment that allows normally submerged emotions to rise to the surface. Thus, Richie’s status as a punk might have been seen as a goofy phase by his buddies, but in the cauldron of paranoia that exists during the summer of Sam, difference is highlighted in a dangerous way, and Richie is scapegoated.
There is plenty of good acting … Lee generally does well at casting. John Leguizamo, born in Colombia and generally thought of as Latino, shines in the lead role. Brody was born and raised in Queens, but with Polish and Hungarian ancestry. Mira Sorvino is a Jersey girl with a famous Italian-American father, and Jennifer Esposito is of Italian descent. I mention this because Lee and the actors seamlessly portray the New York Italians, with rarely a false note between them. (The supporting cast also includes such stalwarts as Patti LuPone and Ben Gazzara.)
The point I am trying to make is that Spike Lee has earned our trust, here and throughout his career, that he can offer realistic portraits of varying aspects of American life. (His two documentaries on New Orleans, for instance, are among his best work.) And his ability to create believable neighborhoods populated by characters who are deeper than mere stereotypes makes his best films engrossing in wonderful ways.
Someone needed to sit Lee down and explain punk rock to him. Specifically, New York punk in 1977. Because while Lee is careful to give us geographies and cultures that are accurate in their way, he fails completely with punk. It comes across as if he didn’t care enough to get it right … Richie wears a series of spiked mohawks that mark him as Other, and his otherness is used as a plot device, but that’s as deep as the punk feel gets in the movie. To choose the most obvious example, no punk in 1977, New York, London, anywhere, would admit to loving the Who and “Baba O’Riley”, even if they secretly did love it. It’s a great song, and it works well for the montage sequence that Lee uses it for. But it shows the entire portrayal of Richie to be a sham.
And if Lee doesn’t care enough about the details of one the most crucial characters in the plot, and about the subculture that is used in the film in direct contrast to the dominant Italian-American culture, then it is hard to take his representation of New York in 1977 seriously.
It’s a tribute to Lee at his best that for the most part, he pulls it off nonetheless. And his movies are often ambitious enough to get a feel of biting off more than you can chew, which is a flaw except it’s part of what makes Lee’s films almost epic. The obvious companion piece is Do the Right Thing, or maybe 25th Hour. For comparison purposes, my two favorite films from 1999 are probably Boys Don’t Cry and Three Kings; easily my least-favorite is Julien Donkey-Boy.