Summer of Sam

John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino

Directed by Spike Lee
Rolling Stone: star rating
5 0
Community: star rating
5 0 0
July 2, 1999

Maybe Spike Lee should be hammered for making a movie that glorifies serial killer David Berkowitz, the post-office clerk known as Son of Sam who terrorized the boroughs of New York during the scorching summer of 1977. Maybe Lee deserves the heat he's taking from the families of the victims -- six shot to death and seven others wounded by the .44-caliber killer -- for exploiting their tragedy. (Berkowitz -- now forty-six, a born-again Christian and serving six consecutive life sentences -- says he was demonically possessed and taking commands from his neighbor Sam's black Labrador retriever.)

Or maybe you should just look at Summer of Sam and realize that the accusations are unfounded. In fact, this tenaciously gripping film is only marginally concerned with Berkowitz, played by Michael Badalucco of The Practice. It's Lee's ambition -- only partly realized -- to show how the killings combined with the heat, blackouts and looting, as well as sexual, racial and cultural tensions, to turn an Italian-American community in the Bronx against itself and all outsiders.

The gifted John Leguizamo heads the cast as Vinny, a hairdresser with a young wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), whose beauty he loves to show off at discos. Dionna is a madonna to Vinny, so he goes to whores for the dirty sex he likes, which leaves Dionna frustrated. Vinny prefers hanging with his gang, especially Ritchie (Adrien Brody), his best friend -- until Ritchie turns punk, cuts his hair mohawk-style and takes up with the neighborhood tramp, Ruby (Jennifer Esposito).

Brody is superb in a role once intended for Leonardo DiCaprio. Ritchie's behavior -- he moonlights as a dancer in a gay-porn club -- estranges him from Vinny and raises suspicions in the hood that Ritchie might be the Son of Sam. Much nonsense has been written about this film's marking a first for Lee in moving away from African-Americans, as if intolerance and the victimizing of outsiders isn't a constant theme of universal relevance. Lee, reworking a script by Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio, directs Summer of Sam like a flamethrower, and he keeps it sparking relentlessly. That's the problem. Though the film is rich in atmosphere -- indie cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Swoon) brings the period to vivid life, including the meccas of punk (CBGB) and sex (Plato's Retreat) -- the human stories don't link up organically to the moral issues at hand. At times, Lee loses his way in the film's blaring, bombastic intensity. OK, then; Lee doesn't make perfect films, though Do the Right Thing came damn close a decade ago. What Lee does make are films that provoke audiences instead of coddling them. Sounds like the right thing to me.

Movie Review Main Next


Community Guidelines »
loading comments

loading comments...


Sort by:
    Read More

    Movie Reviews

    More Reviews »
    Around the Web
    Powered By ZergNet
    Daily Newsletter

    Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

    Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
    marketing partners.


    We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

    Song Stories

    “American Girl”

    Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers | 1976

    It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

    More Song Stories entries »