Review: The Wanderers

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

One of the most affecting moments in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the swamping of the soundtrack with an amplified-bagpipe version of “Amazing Grace” as the remaining human searched the night world for a means of escape. The cargo ship whose radio is the source of the music turns out to be loading up with pods, and as the hero sees this and the door is shut on his hopes of a getaway, the radio dial is turned from “Grace” to a newscaster’s flat voice. This scene is dramatically different from the counterpart sequence in Don Siegel’s original Body Snatchers: there the hero heard some Spanish singing, had his hopes raised that he was among feeling humans again, excitedly climbed over a hill to meet them—and discovered simultaneously that these are pod people and that that’s only a radio, not a woman singing, as the station is abruptly changed. The difference between the two versions is that Kaufman does not pretend that the music is anything but artificial, while Siegel surehandedly goes after the shock we feel when the station is switched; Kaufman seems interested in the mythic proportions of the music itself (the lyrics of the hymn, not sung but surely known by 75 percent of the audience, comment suggestively on the organized, sheeplike groups of pods: “I once was lost, but now I’m found—was blind, but now I see”), especially as they are set against the tiny visual representation of the hero. All of which finally comes around to the observation that this guy Kaufman can put music and images together real well, and that his latest film, The Wanderers, displays this talent for much of its running time.

Set on the streets of the Bronx in 1963, The Wanderers features the already anachronistic street gangs against the music of the time: songs like “Pipeline,” “The Wanderer,” and “Runaround Sue” inspire a kind of choreography on sidewalks, in alleyways, on playgrounds. The way the members of the Wanderers fall in behind their leader, Richie, while their song is playing on the soundtrack and they bounce among the tenements, makes for one of the great sequences of unleashed, celebratory cinema this past year. The high spirits of the film wouldn’t be worth much if they weren’t tinged with sadness. It creeps in here through the depiction of people existing on the edge of a changing world; we are watching something being lost as the movie rolls by. It’s that moment in history when John F. Kennedy was appearing (on a store-window TV Richie glimpses) for one of the last times, and Bob Dylan was appearing (in a little club—Richie sees him through a window, too) for one of the first times. The overwhelming sense of change in the outside world of The Wanderers is embodied in a new gang called the Ducky Boys, who come from a landscape (dust-filled air, fires burning abstractly in the streets) as alien as anything in Body Snatchers, and who can materialize in a matter of seconds to swarm over the other gangs. The Wanderers themselves are poised in that time of life (the end of high school) when they are supposed to decide what to do with their futures. Richie is the gang member with the sharpest perception of the alleyways closing in on him.

Happily, we aren’t treated to a movie of him brooding and talking about the hopelessness of the situation (as in Saturday Night Fever or—another Richard Price adaptation—Bloodbrothers, where the heroes spent too much time telling us what the movies were about); instead, the images come together to form the picture from which we can draw our own conclusions, and Richie’s confusion becomes all the more painful. The prospect of him toiling in a bowling alley (Paradise Lanes) and growing fatter as the years go by (like the middleaged Italian role models of success in the community) is frustrating enough as it is presented—the film wisely does not spell things out for us. Another gang gets inducted into the Marines as a joke, but their recruiting officer is dead serious, and as the gang drives away the audience can compute their ages in relation to the war just warming up in Southeast Asia. Kaufman’s decision to imply rather than to slate baldly makes The Wanderers a rich and entertaining film (Dylan’s singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is the only heavyhanded moment). When Richie’s closest friends, Joey and Perry, strike out on their own, they repeat the gang motto: “WANDERERS FOREVER!” The ambiguity has been carefully prepared: the thought of these boys as rootless wanderers is a melancholy one, but maybe they also have something that can never be taken away from them. The Wanderers Forever. I can dig that.

© 1980 Robert Horton

THE WANDERERS
Direction: Philip Kaufman. Screenplay: Philip and Rose Kaufman; after the novel by Richard Price.
The players: Ken Wahl, John Friedrich, Karen Allen, Toni Kalem, Alan Rosenberg, Linda Manz, Val Avery, Dolph Sweet.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.