"Eddie and the Cruisers" is an intriguing pretext for a pop music drama. The screenplay by director Martin Davidson and Arlene Davidson is obviously a variation on "Citizen Kane" and might have been less subject to deterioration if the prototype had been copied more attentively.
Now at area theaters, "Eddie" starts off with the idea that a short-lived but perhaps seminal New Jersey rock quintet of the early '60s is being "rediscovered" 20 years later. A television journalist named Maggie Foley, played by Ellen Barkin, envisions the revival as a golden opportunity for an investigative feature, since a couple of mysteries surround the group's meteoric career. Only a single album by Eddie and the Cruisers exists. The tapes of a notorious second album, "A Season in Hell," disappeared from the record company soon after the group's leader, Eddie Wilson, vanished, presumably washed away by the tides after his car plunged off a bridge.
The script takes a curious tangent by declining to exploit Barkin's character as the connecting thread between episodes recalled by surviving members of the band. That connection is provided by the first person she contacts: Tom Berenger as Frank Ridgeway, the group's lyricist and pianist.
There's no reason why the information revealed through Ridgeway's encounters with the other band members couldn't have been dredged up by the reporter, and since Ridgeway was a latecomer to the group, he's the least informed witness. He replaces the journalist in order to accommodate a late-blooming romantic subplot; he is supposed to rekindle an abiding infatuation with the group's female component, Joann Carlino (Helen Schneider), who was Eddie's girl in the old days but turns up nurturing a reciprocal fondness for the songwriter.
What finally undermines the screenplay is the Davidsons' failure to provide sufficient information about the band's creation and the elusive character of its leader. They've left a promising outline incomplete, particularly where the title character is concerned. It doesn't matter so much how or from whom a portrait of Eddie and the Cruisers comes into focus as long as a full-bodied, revealing portrait emerges from the mists of memory by the time the movie fades out. Unfortunately, the portrait that remains is sketchy and inadequate; we don't learn every suggestive thing it would be desirable to know about Eddie Wilson, supposedly a charismatic but uncompromising and perhaps self-destructive musical agitator, and about the chemistry that united and sometimes threatened the group he inspired and organized.
Michael Pare', the young actor cast as Eddie, has a dynamic, rugged screen presence. Physically and vocally, he seems a plausible image of a troublemaking entertainer, a young man so intent on perfecting an idiosyncratic musical style that he might be inclined to wreck a career when confronted with resistance to his vision or his personal authority. Illuminating such a personality is a difficult but potentially sensational dramatic task.
One of the better sequences in the movie depicts a jam session in which the brusque, confident leader succeeds in making the shaky newcomer a part of the group. It would be preferable if each member of the band triggered a similarly expressive blast from the past. Despite her romantic ties to Eddie, Joann contributes nothing in the way of intimate knowledge about what made him tick. Moreover, Helen Schneider is used so sparingly as a vocalist that you can't help wondering if Eddie was ignorant of her singing voice, which emerges very effectively in one brief interlude, or wanted to suppress it. The musician who appears to be the lyric heart of the group, a jazz saxophonist played by Michael "Tunes" Antunes, turns out to be deceased, an exceedingly trite victim of a drug overdose, so his testimony can't be recorded. When Ridgeway encounters the group's drummer, played by David Wilson, who urges him to remember "the fights, the arguments, the hassles," alert spectators are bound to be reminded of the movie's failure to document this hint of ongoing conflict within the Cruisers.
Berenger is sneakily attractive as the quiet, diffident Ridgeway. He almost pulls off the illusion that this character is a sufficient window onto the past by being such a thoughtful, subtly responsive camera subject himself.
From sequence to sequence, Davidson's direction seems straightforward and observant, attuned to performing nuances that would accumulate more plentifully and decisively if his cast had a richer text to enact. Kenny Vance's supervision of the musical aspects seems smartly evocative, at least as far as my limited familiarity with the setting can perceive.
It doesn't require a vast leap of faith to believe that the Cruisers were evolving a distinctive sound and might have prefigured the more demonic, experimental rockers of a few years later. At any rate, it seemed to me that what "Eddie and the Cruisers" aspired to do was certainly worth doing. The problem is that it finally lacks the storytelling resources to tell enough of an intriguing story about a musical mystery man. EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS Directed by Martin Davidson; screenplay by Martin Davidson and Arlene Davidson; music by John Cafferty; produced by Joseph Brooks and Robert K. Lifton; director of photography, Fred Murphy. Released by Embassy Pictures. Running time: 92 minutes. Rated PG. THE CAST Tom Berenger . . . . Frank Ridgeway Michael Pare' . . . . Eddie Wilson Joe Pantoliano . . . . Doc Robbins Matthew Laurance . . . . Sal Amato Helen Schneider . . . . Joann Carlino