Friday, April 06, 2012

Oh (No) Susanna: Bangles' Hoffs Turns Me On To 'Stony Island,' Albeit in Absentia

If "Iconic Beauties of the '80s" was a Jeopardy category and "She provided the single most titillating music video moment of the decade" was the answer, my question would be:

"Who is Susanna Hoffs?"

As a member of The Bangles, that point near the end of "Walk Like An Egyptian" when Hoffs pauses and demurely rolls her eyes--well let's just say I recall it fondly.

Though I genuinely enjoyed several Bangles songs for their musical merits, that moment--and Hoffs herself--was enough to prompt me to attend a Bangles reunion show at the House of Blues several years back (they have also performed more recently).

And while I'm always interested in learning about Chicago history, especially through informative films, I can't deny it was the chance to see Susanna--who's still quite lovely at 53--that brought me to the Siskel Film Center last night for a screening of Stony Island.

Focusing on an interracial band of R&B musicians from Chicago's South Side, Stony Island was the first feature film directed by Andrew Davis, who would go on to make The Fugitive and a number of other movies.

Released, briefly, in 1978, it was co-written by Davis and Tamar Hoffs, Susanna's mother. One of the stars is Richie Davis, Andrew's brother, and as his character's girlfriend, an 18-year-old Susanna Hoffs made her film debut. (Then a UC Berkeley freshman, she also served as a Production Assistant on the film.)

Thus, in addition to a screening of the film--which will be released on DVD for the first time on April 24--the Siskel two-night event was to include a discussion with Andrew Davis, Tamar Hoffs, Susanna Hoffs and (on Thursday only) Richie Davis.

While I have great respect for successful directors and enjoy hearing them talk about their work--I recently attended an event where John McNaughton spoke about his underrated Chicagoland-based film, Normal Life--given my "Eternal Flame" for Susanna, she was, for me, the main attraction.

But she wasn't there. 

And no explanation was given for her absence (I don't know if she had been there on Wednesday).

Perhaps she had to get back home to prepare a Passover seder, as although she walked like an Egyptian, Susanna Hoffs could also be part of a "Jewish Rock Stars" Jeopardy category along with Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Geddy Lee and Joey Ramone (or Billy Joel, David Lee Roth, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Lou Reed, Leslie West, Beck, all three Beastie Boys and several others). In fact, Hoffs' grandfather--Tamar's father--was Ralph Simon, a longtime Rabbi at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Hyde Park.

I realize she wasn't going to sing--though the possibility of her participating in a post-movie concert at Buddy Guy's Legends was mentioned in Dave Hoekstra's Sun-Times piece on Stony Island--and even Davis' comments were rather brief as they segued into the showing of a short documentary he crafted on the making of Stony Island, which featured several insights from Susanna, Tamar, both Davis brothers, Gene Barge (a longtime Chicago musician and a star of the film), additional actors plus Quincy Jones, Chuck D. and others.

In all likelihood, I probably saw Susanna better and heard more from her in the documentary than I would have in person, but it still would have been nice had someone apologized to those of us who endured a 90-minute traffic jam down the Edens/Kennedy and paid $11 on the basis that she would be there.

Still, the movie itself was quite worthwhile as a time capsule of late '70s Chicago and--per the Davis boys--a rather accurate depiction of racial harmony on their native South Side, at least among up-and-coming musicians.

Stony Island Avenue runs through the South Side and according to Andrew Davis is literally the road  that was first walked on by greats like Louis Armstrong and Muddy Waters upon migrating to Chicago.

Along with Richie Davis, the two main stars of the movie are Gene Barge, a legendary saxophonist who plays Percy Pride, something of a mentor to the young musicians, and Edward "Stoney" Robinson, a gifted young singer who died in 1979, shortly after--and perhaps somewhat exacerbated by--the movie's ill-fated release.

According to the post-film discussion and documentary, Stony Island was initially released in seven Chicago-area theaters. It supposedly received strong reviews and attracted young black audiences to theaters in white neighborhoods. Scared that they would lose their other audiences, the white theater owners complained and the movie was quickly pulled. It was subsequently re-released as My Main Man From Stony Island and promoted as a blaxploitation picture, with a trailer antithetical to the movie's true nature.

So it was shelved until now. While I wouldn't quite label it as fantastic, it's well worth seeing if only for the historical context. Davis stated that he was inspired by American Graffiti and Mean Streets and wanted to make a film about his own neighborhood.

There are a lot of great characters in the movie--including one played by a young Dennis Franz--and some wonderful lines, including the sublimely delivered, "Chicago is a nice town if you're looking for a pizza." The music, written specifically for the film, is also quite enchanting.

Though her screen time is relatively brief, it is fun seeing a young Hoffs. While others in the movie have gone on to nice careers--Richie Davis still performs with the Chicago Catz--I think it's safe to say that Susanna became the most successful singer, yet she doesn't sing in the film. But in the documentary and an interview with Hoekstra, she cites how the film experience (along with seeing The Sex Pistols and Patti Smith perform around the same time) was crucial to her eventual career path.

As seen in Stony Island, Hoffs wasn't quite as stunning as she would become with the Bangles, but it's already quite clear that the camera loves her.

Which is why my digital point-and-shoot was at the ready last night, but alas, like many tales of young lust gone unfulfilled, it wasn't meant to be. (The photo at left was found on her Facebook page, from an event in March.)

Not quite a case of "Hero Takes a Fall," but I still think an explanation would have been nice. Even if it was only, "If I had an airplane I still couldn't make it on time."

1 comment:

Seth Arkin said...

I followed up this piece with an inquiry to Siskel Film Center Executive Director Jean de St. Aubin about Susanna Hoffs' non-appearance.

Jean sent me a nice reply explaining "I too was disappointed. We were told she would be there; even up to show time they were expecting her to come late."

This was regarding Thursday. Out of curiosity, I asked Jean whether Susanna appeared on Wednesday. She said she didn't, but hadn't been scheduled to. Yet the Siskel Center's website (as shown in the piece above) clearly states that Susanna would be there on both days.