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Spike Lee's Turning Point and Living With 'Summer of Sam'

Movies: The year 1977 was a pivotal one for the filmmaker, whose latest effort reexamines that time for a much different reason.


NEW YORK CITY — Once upon a time, there was a great city on an island. The people who lived there woke up one morning to find out their city was broke. They asked everyone for help, even the president of the United States. He told them, in so many words, to drop dead.

The people were very sad. Suddenly it was summer. And the city seemed, all at once, to go, well . . . a little crazy.

Isn't that how a Disney movie tells a story? It's possible that "Summer of Sam," being released today by Disney's Touchstone Pictures, could be recounted in such a manner, but not likely.

For one thing, it's set in New York and the summer it chronicles is 1977, a season during which the city, still reeling from near-economic apocalypse, tumbled head-first into a state of mood-swinging anxiety. There was, for one thing, a massive citywide blackout, followed by rioting in the streets. Meanwhile, the Yankees were contending for a championship when they could remember to stop contending with each other.

And, as the movie's title acknowledges, the streets were haunted by the specter of David Berkowitz, a.k.a. "Son of Sam," who slaughtered innocent people at random before he was finally arrested.

For Spike Lee, the film's director, producer and co-writer, it was also the summer that he finally figured out what he wanted to do with his life.

"I had just finished my sophomore year at Morehouse College in Atlanta," Lee recalls one morning in the Madison Avenue offices of Spike/DDB, his advertising agency. "I came home trying to find a job, and there were no jobs to be found. I had gotten a Super-8 camera and spent the whole summer shooting stuff all over the city. Block parties, some of the blackout-related stuff, people dealing with the heat, dances, DJs. All that was happening.

"What happened to that film? I put it all together under this very amateurish title called 'Last Hustle in Brooklyn.' The important thing for me was that as soon as I went back to school, I declared my major in mass communications. All because of that summer."

Film's Action Focuses on Bronx Neighborhood

"Summer of Sam" appears to have much in common with that long-ago amateur film in its effort to take in as much physical and cultural territory as it can. Its central location is an Italian American neighborhood in the Bronx, where the tumultuous events of the '77 summer--indeed, the cultural upheaval of the late 1970s--are filtered through the experiences of a few neighborhood residents.

Lee says the script came to him from actors Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli from TV's "The Sopranos." The latter, who also is the film's executive producer (and has a small role in the movie), had worked in Lee's films such as "Clockers" (1995) and "Girl 6" (1996). It was after that last film had wrapped that Imperioli showed Lee what he called their script about the blackout.

"I loved it, but it was never meant for me to direct," Lee says. "I just figured that, with the little juice that I had, I could get it produced somewhere. And for two years, we couldn't get any interest in front of or behind the camera. Then after [last year's] 'He Got Game,' I had another project that couldn't happen fast enough. So I went back to this script and said, 'Well, let me do this.' "

Other than Roger Guenveur Smith's detective and Lee's WABC-TV newsman, there are no major African American characters in "Summer of Sam," which, among its other attributes, offers further evidence of Lee's affinity for and facility with Italian American street culture, demonstrated in such films as "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Jungle Fever" (1991).

"Ben Gazzara complimented me on [knowing] the Italian American milieu. He says to me [affecting a gruff Gazzara imitation], 'Musta grown up in an Italian neighborhood, huh?' But that wasn't the case. I mean, I had a lot of Italian friends growing up, but I don't want to say that because it'd be like a white director saying, 'Some of my best friends . . . ,' you know?"

Lee says his main contribution to the Colicchio-Imperioli script was most of the stuff outside the neighborhood. "I just wanted to open it up more." In doing so, he's brought truckloads of verisimilitude, starting with the bookended narration of Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, who found himself communicating with the .44-Caliber Killer, as Berkowitz was also known that summer, while the latter was still at large. The period atmosphere is enhanced by a soundtrack that runs from ABBA to the Who and through shrewd deployment of such cameo players as Reggie Jackson and local New York TV anchors.

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