The Semi-Lost Brilliance of John Sayles’ “Baby It’s You” by Keith Phipps
By Yasmina Tawil
It’s only on the second viewing that it becomes apparent that the opening moments of Baby It’s You double as the film in miniature. After a bell rings to signal the end of one class period at a Trenton, New Jersey high school, senior Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) emerges from class chatting away with some friends, all of them dressed in complementary outfits that could have been taken from the wardrobe department of The Patty Duke Show. By chance, she bumps into The Sheik (Vincent Spano), who would stand out even if he weren’t the new kid in school. The year is 1966, but no one told him. He wears his hair slicked back and a suit and tie so pristine it mocks the idea of propriety. They exchange an electric glance, then Jill keeps moving. Sheik, on the other hand, remains planted in place. All he can do is look at her while she walks away.
Later they become high-school sweethearts, sort of, even though much divides them. She’s Jewish and solidly middle class, having grown up in a home that doubles as an office for her doctor father. He’s Italian and working class, having grown up in a cramped house where the TV’s always on and the furniture is covered in plastic. They’re from opposite sides of Trenton, but could just as easily come from different eras. She listens to Dusty Springfield. He idolizes Frank Sinatra. “You listen to Sinatra?,” he asks her. “My parents do,” she replies. “They got taste.”
Yet, in spite of it all, they connect. He takes her out driving and shows her Trenton at night, telling her it “looks like a whole different place.” Her choice of suitor puzzles her friends and concerns a drama teacher, who warns her “I’ve seen many a promising young actress betray her talent for the sake of a few… careless adventures.” They fight. He makes a borderline insane romantic gesture. They get back together. There’s a chemistry between them that no one can deny, in spite of all that stands in their way.
A different sort of movie would end the story here, at this moment of reunion, holding on an improbable moment that suggests all involved will live happily ever after. Baby It’s You gets there with more than an hour to go, and even this brief flash of happiness doesn’t last long. The film’s real final scene, which arrives after the characters have drifted in and out of each other’s life, defines bittersweet. Jill and Sheik have experienced considerable disappointments after high school, she in college at Sarah Lawrence, he as a lounge entertainer in Miami, lip syncing to others’ songs and pretending he doesn’t care that he doesn’t get to sing. It’s also one of the reasons you’ve most likely never seen this movie.
John Sayles’ third feature film as a writer and director, Baby It’s You is the first time Sayles made a film in which a major studio had some sort of creative input. The film’s story came from Amy Robinson, an actress and producer who drew on her own experiences as a New Jersey teenager. A company called Double Play provided the financing, but Paramount signed on for the distribution, fighting Sayles for final cut and expressing special concern over the insufficiently upbeat ending. Sayles won the battle only to see the film receive a token release in the spring of 1983—where it competed with the sex comedy My Tutor—then retreated back to the world of independent production. His next film, The Brother From Another Planet, would have no such interference. Neither would the one after that or the one after that.
Sayles had already made balancing what Hollywood wanted against what he wanted part of his career calculus, penning screenplays for films like The Howling and Battle Beyond The Stars and using the money to finance his own projects. (He still does this, working usually without credit as a script doctor.) With Baby It’s You that calculus got out of whack. While it’s not hard to see why Paramount had a hard time figuring out what to do with the film, the same qualities that made it an odd fit in the 1983 marketplace make it worth rediscovering now.
Like Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Color, Baby It’s You follows a love affair from infatuation to passion to disillusion to the point where at least one of the lovers can look back on what’s happened and begin to understand the role it has played in his or her life. Like those films, it captures the way time keeps pushing its characters forward even as their hearts yearn for the past. Jill’s musical taste moves from The Supremes to The Velvet Underground, her style from cashmere sweaters to caftans. She processes her time with Sheik first as great adventure, then as a joke about New Jersey crudity, and finally as fodder for a drama class exercise. Her feelings change, but the experience still has a hold on her.
Arquette, who began acting in her teens, would have to wait a few years for her big breakthrough in Desperately Seeking Susan but it should have happened here. In the early scenes, she plays her as a girl struggling to discover who she is as a person and as an aspiring actor. In later scenes, she plays her as a college kid trying on a series of unconvincing affectations—hippie, libertine, New Jersey traitor. Maybe she was only truly herself with Sheik. Maybe she only realizes this after the time and place in which they could have had something together has vanished into the past, if it ever existed at all.
Spano matches her in every scene, playing a character whose carefully crafted appearance and persona do little to shield him from heartbreak. When he walks the school cafeteria looking for Jill, his expression remains cool even as the soundtrack bursts with the first of several Bruce Springsteen songs, an anachronistic choice, but the right one. (Sayles would go on to direct several of Springsteen’s videos.) But even if Springsteen had never cut a record, Baby It’s You would have immortalized the time and place that inspired his music: The divides between generation and class, the romantic yearning to break free of it all, the crushing disappointment when those attempts fail. “Trenton Makes. The World Takes” reads the slogan on the Lower Trenton Bridge. The film lets those words take on several different meanings.
Working with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus—between his stints serving as the go-to DP for Fassbinder and Scorsese—Sayles expresses all this in language more cinematic than that found in his first two features, The Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna. Yet it remains something of a ghost in Sayles’ filmography, a neglected film that never received its due at the time—even admirers, like Roger Ebert, weren’t sure what to make of the second half—and it remains semi-forgotten now. A recently released Blu-ray from Olive Films, a Chicago company that’s made a habit of rescuing movies that might otherwise have fallen through the cracks, most likely won’t change that, and maybe it’s appropriate that a film about the irretrievable past should start to fade into semi-obscurity. This not-quite love story — that understands happiness often has nothing to do with happy endings and that time keeps pushing people along no matter how much they’d like to stay planted — deserves better, for the way it uses music alone. Sayles fills the soundtrack with memorable songs. One says “Baby, it’s you.” Another, “She’s the one.” But life keeps going after the fade out.