Stewart Copeland's music gets into my system first. He makes the first sound on Peter Gabriel's SO: a single hi-hit ticking and splashing, heralding the "Red Rain" that opens the album so devastatingly. Over the course of the summer of 1986, SO changes my life completely. A couple of months later in Utah, watching my first episode of THE EQUALIZER on CBS, Copeland's name again, this time as composer of the formidable and energizing score of that series. The next day, a record/tape store at the Crossroads mall yields a cut-out tape of his score for RUMBLE FISH, I movie I recalled but had never gotten to see. The tape engages me immediately, and though Copeland's acoustic/electric soundscape for Hinton & Coppola's Tulsa is light years away from the electronic urban hellscape he composed for THE EQUALIZER, it remains in heavy rotation in the coming years. Any musical instrument in my possession has some of Copeland's motifs played on it; my old manual typewriter is integrated into the mutt percussion set-up taking up more space in my basement room.
I catch up with the movie belatedly, on video, a couple of years later. As foreign as it is initially, with its time-lapsed clouds billowing over its young, going-nowhere, gang-fighting protagonists, it too engages me immediately. An only child, I view the story of brothers Rusty James (Matt Dillon, uncannily channeling my friend James) and the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Roarke, just as uncannily embodying Sean) from some distance, but from that vantage appreciate the care taken in its characters, its music, its look, and its other sounds. Coppola's mission had always been to make an art movie for the kids: my own eyes were opening to experimental/avant-garde music, film and art, and so I was squarely in Coppola's target demographic. The kids in John Hughes' movies talked like we imagined we would, at our best, but something about Coppola's movie felt more honest, more real to me. I don't see in black and white, there were few fog machines present in my world, and my family's suburban home was far from any noisy factory setting. And yet RUMBLE FISH looked and felt like the world in which I lived.
It was until well after I moved to San Francisco, in the heart of Coppola territory, that I finally saw the movie on film for the first time. Tulsa breathes on film, the ghostly clouds and fog taking on an ethereal life, Rusty James seen as larger-than-life as he aspires to be, his stupidity and vulnerability rendered crystal clear. The Motorcycle Boy, too, appears vast and wise, as regal as the characters regard him ("royalty in exile", as one character puts it), but we see to his weariness, his uneasiness in his own skin. Coppola swings for the fences in stylizing the thing, and it still looks and feels quite unlike any youth-targeted movie I've ever seen (not to say that it's the only such film with avant-garde ambitions; Phil Joanou worked similar magic mining an ordinary high school for otherworldy atmosphere in THREE O'CLOCK HIGH). Set in a curious otherworld that resembles an earlier decade (but set, according to Coppola, in the near future), the thing remains timeless.
And to be quite honest I'm not sure why its hold on me remains. I've outgrown other movies of my youth, or enjoy some of them without nearly the stake that I had in them back then. Maybe the distance between me and the story remains, allowing me to look at it objectively still now, and find new things. Maybe, estranged as I am from James and Sean (with no chance to reconcile with the latter, may he rest in peace), I value the movie for bringing them back. Maybe I value it for bringing ME back. Or maybe, just maybe, it's as great a movie as I know, as I feel, it is.