Baby It's You Review
New Jersey, 1966. At high school, Jewish doctor’s daughter Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) catches the eye of Albert Capadilupo (Vincent Spano). A handsome Italian-American from a working-class background, Albert is nicknamed “The Sheik” for reasons she – and we – don’t discover until later. At first she is intrigued by him, though put off by his insistent advances, but eventually they become an item. Then Jill wins a place at Sarah Lawrence and Sheik leaves for Miami to pursue a singing career like his idol Frank Sinatra…
Although Baby It’s You was John Sayles’s third feature as writer-director, and his first for a major studio, it wasn’t a project originated by him. Amy Robinson was an actress, best known for her role in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Together with another actor, Griffin Dunne, she moved into producing in the late 1970s, founding a production company, Double Play. Their first feature was Head Over Heels, also known as Chilly Scenes of Winter, directed by Joan Micklin Silver, an indie romantic comedy that picked up a cult following. (It’s become neglected in recent years, possibly due to lack of opportunities to see it – can someone please put it out on DVD?) Baby It’s You was their second production, made on a low budget for Paramount. It was a personal project for Robinson, who has a story credit, and Jill’s experiences in the film are semi-autobiographical. (Another personal touch is the closing dedication – “To Dominique”, Dunne’s sister, who had played the older daughter in Poltergeist and who had been murdered by her boyfriend the previous year.)
Sayles may have been a gun for hire, as writer and director, but his work adds considerably to Baby It’s You. His ear for dialogue is recognisable from his first two films, Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lianna, and it’s been a constant throughout his career. His script brings out the class tensions that threaten to pull Jill and Sheik apart. The social changes of the 60s are brought to the fore: Jill’s growing feminist conscience versus Sheik’s unthinking – though not insensitive – machismo, and in particular the sexual politics of an era. Via her friend Jodie, Jill learns that a woman can have sex without being thought a slut, and can enjoy it too. I also appreciated a healthy dose of realism in the ending, which doesn’t tie everything together in a neat little bow – it’s not so much happy as bittersweet.
A bigger budget allows for shooting in 35mm (DP Michael Ballhaus, who had worked regularly with Fassbinder in the 70s, making one of his earliest American films). Sayles also made use of some Bruce Springsteen songs. In fact, Baby It’s You marks the first time Springsteen’s songs appear on the soundtrack of a non-documentary film. At the time he was in between being declared the future of rock (with Born to Run) and superstar status with Born in the USA a year later. (Sayles directed three videos for the latter album.) You could argue over using 70s songs in a film set in the 60s, but Springsteen’s songs have always been steeped in the music of the 60s and 50s, so they don’t seem out of place amongst the genuine 60s music (Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Dusty Springfield, The Supremes, even The Velvet Underground and not forgetting Sinatra). Whether it’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” introducing us to The Sheik or “Adam Raised a Cain” at a late crisis point, they simply work. (Though having said that, they aren't Springsteen's originals but soundalike cover versions, due to licensing costs being prohibitive.)
Despite a strong supporting cast (including an early role for Robert Downey Jr and a debut one for Matthew Modine), Baby It’s You is really a two-hander and would be nothing without its two lead performances. Vincent Spano is still a working actor, but this is one of his few lead roles, and it’s his best. He has the handsomeness necessary for the role, but undercuts it with a vulnerability that makes him appealing, and helps to explain why Jill is still drawn to him. Rosanna Arquette had many fans at the time (myself included) and this was her first leading role on the big screen – and thoroughly engaging she is too. There are those of us who considered she held Desperately Seeking Susan together two years later, despite the attention paid to her co-star. She’s still very much in work, but mostly on TV in the last two decades.
Sayles found Baby It’s You a problematic experience, and was denied final cut. However, the film was a critical favourite, making several top tens for the year, but it was a box-office failure. Paramount passed on it for UK release, leaving an independent distributor, Mainline Pictures, to pick it up. Sayles returned to the indie world with his next film The Brother from Another Planet.
Baby It’s You is part of a package licensed to Legend Films from Paramount for DVD release. The disc is single-layered and NTSC-format and is encoded for Region 1 only.
The film is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1. It’s an adequate – though interlaced - transfer, if you make allowances for its age. Ballhaus uses a lot of filters, which makes the transfer softer than you might expect today. But the colours are accurate, and blacks are solid. Shadow detail could be better, but it’s acceptable. A strange ghosting effect, which my colleague John White noticed on the same distributor’s DVD of The Girl on the Bridge makes occasional appearances here, but as this film is not French in origin I very much doubt that this is a PAL-to-NTSC standards conversion: for one thing, the running time is the same as the theatrical release.
Baby It’s You was made in mono, which is not unexpected for a low-budget production from 1983. As I often end up saying when dealing with mono tracks on pre-1985 films, it’s a professional job of work, with dialogue, sound effects and music well balanced. Five years later the film would almost certainly have been made in Dolby Stereo, if only to benefit the music, but as it wasn’t then it should be left as it was.
There are no subtitles, which is regrettable. There are no extras either, not even a trailer.