Stony Island—the 1978 feature debut of journeyman Holes/The Fugitive director Andrew Davis—is a sweet-natured, low-key love letter to three specific things: 1) the city of Chicago, 2) the vibrant pre-rap R&B scene of the 1970s, and 3) the 1970s themselves. 1) and 2) were obviously intentional, but it’s actually 3) that’s the most fascinating. What makes Stony Island so much fun to watch in 2012 is its time-capsule qualities. Here the Windy City is, in all its grit and shaggy Carter Administration glory—filmed with more grain than an LDS apocalypse silo, and loaded top-to-bottom with some totally decent Sly Stone-ish soul funk.
If you’ve seen The Muppets or The Blues Brothers, you already know the basic plot. Best friends Richie (Richard Davis), a talented white-boy guitarist, and Kevin (Edward Stoney Robinson), a jovial African-American soul singer, dream of making it big in the music industry. Under the guidance of kindly old bandleader/mentor Percy (Gene Barge), they gradually assemble, à la The Avengers, the “Stony Island Band,” a motley collection of Chi-Town misfits, one member at a time. It’s all pretty low-impact stuff, aided by some vaguely-memorable supporting performances by George Englund (as the band’s hick saxophone player), and a pre-“Walk Like an Egyptian” Susanna Hoffs (as Davis’s love interest.)
That’s pretty much it. But much like The Blues Brothers, the plot here exists mainly just to string together a series of musical numbers, which are, admittedly, pretty great—even if, like me, you don’t really like this kind of music (to paraphrase Tyler Durden: on a long enough timeline, anything with alto sax eventually just sounds like the opening of Night Court.)
At times, Stony Island almost feels like an academic exercise in how little dramatic conflict it’s possible to have in a conventional narrative. Richie and Kevin want to start a band, so they do. No one stands in their way or tells them No. They want to play live, so they go to a club owner and ask to play at the club. The owner says yes, and they do. They play well, and the audience enjoys it. That’s pretty much how this whole movie goes. And you know what? That’s fine. Maybe I’m just getting old and stressed out, but sometimes it’s just, well… nice to watch nice people be good at things and get what they want. Misery for misery’s sake doesn’t always have to be the default setting of High Art.
But for me, the main attraction here isn’t necessarily the music. It’s Stony Island’s street-level look at grimy, bustling, neon-lit Chicago at the height of elegant decay during the nationwide urban-center crisis of the mid-late 20th century. If you’re a fan of grainy 35mm footage of dirty streets and crumbling brick storefronts, this movie’s for you. And whatever fairytale aspects the overall story may have, the filmmakers really sell the realism of their setting on a visceral, tactile level—from the sweat and steam of the inner-city hotdog stand, to the clank and rattle of the lumbering L train.
This new DVD release is fairly bare bones. Included are a wisely-excised alternate ending, which tacks a dumb and unnecessary coda onto an already satisfying ending, and an interesting (if workmanlike) 30-minute making-of retrospective full of interviews and anecdotes.
Infectiously enthusiastic, Stony Island is a fun, breezy watch perfectly made for background viewing at your next 70s-themed fondue party.