Directed by Patrick Read Johnson.
Starring John Francis Daley, Austin Pendleton, Colleen Camp, Neil Flynn, Emmy Chen, Stephen Coulter and Justin Mentell.
5-25-77, Patrick Reed Johnson’s autobiographical love letter to coming of age in late 60s and 70s cinema, has finally seen its official release. It took him nearly 20 years to make the film, given various delays, and is now out on Blu-ray in a release that includes a commentary track, three image galleries, and a post-view Q&A from 2013.
I remember hearing about 5-25-77 on and off over the years, and I confess that until I got this Blu-ray for review, I thought it had been released at some point. Little did I know until I read online that it took over 20 years for the movie to see the light of day in its finished form.
The film is an autobiographical account of director and writer Patrick Reed Johnson’s key childhood and school years growing up in a small town in Illinois. Played by John Francis Daly of Freaks and geeks fame, Johnson is portrayed as a likable nerd whose small circle of friends poke fun at his amateur filmmaking efforts, including a sequel Jawswhile the top athlete in their school watches him for a beating from time to time.
I grew up in the 1970s and I can attest that guys like Johnson really stood out back then, especially before star Wars‘ landmark 1977 release. Johnson loves 2001: Space Odysseyfor example, and dreams of someday meeting special effects master Douglas Trumbull, an aspiration his friends don’t really understand.
As do his siblings who basically go along with his ideas, such as hanging his little brother from the basement ceiling so he can look like he’s drifting through space. Unfortunately, his father leaves the family during Johnson’s childhood and it is his mother who has to deal with events such as Johnson clogging the pool filter with fake blood and intestines as part of his Jaws 2 production.
However, his mother appreciates his dreams and eventually makes a cold phone call to Herb Lightman, editor American cinematographer magazine and friend of Trumbull and other special effects professionals. This leads to a cathartic trip to California where Johnson witnesses special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind as well as star Wars in action, meeting his hero Trumbull, the very forward head of Industrial Light and Magic John Dykstra, and even the very young Steven Spielberg. As a result, he becomes the first outsider who saw early star Wars footage that reinforces his anticipation of the film and encourages him to try to rally not only his friends but the entire school to watch it on May 25, 1977.
Johnson and his team did an excellent job of recreating the 70s time period and capturing the filmmakers of that era, with the exception of Spielberg. The actor playing the famous director looks like a teenage version of Spielberg, not like a guy who just turned 30. He also doesn’t look like him at all, further hampering my disbelief.
And counting down 132 minutes, 5-25-77 feels a little bloated. It probably could have been shortened a bit, especially some of the special effects sequences that give us a glimpse into Johnson’s mind but get a little tedious after a while. The opening credits are also a bit laborious. I wanted to say: “I know, I understand, you showed who this guy is. Let’s pick up the pace a bit.”
However, these are minor quibbles about the film, which is not only a love letter to the era and the freaks and geeks that inhabited it, but also a coming-of-age story when Johnson falls in love with a girl he sees reading an Arthur C. Clarke book. 2001: Space Odyssey Romance in the school cafeteria. He falls deeply in love with her, envisioning a future in which she will accompany him to Hollywood as he strives to fulfill his dreams, but she does not entirely agree with this, creating an emotionally difficult situation typical of many teen romances.
It’s a pity that some of the people involved in this movie didn’t get to see the final cut, including producer Gary Kurtz (american graffiti, star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back), the real Herb Lightman and others. I’m guessing they were at least able to see an early version, so at least it’s there.
In fact, Johnson confirms that at least Lightman was able to do so in the 54-minute Q&A included with this Blu-ray disc. This is from the screening of the film in 2013, before all the special effects were completed, and even before the rights to the music were obtained. (Don’t say ASCAP!) Johnson tells many stories about the making of the film, including how closely it matches reality (short version: very close, but liberties were taken with the timeline to fit the film’s narrative).
Johnson also gets to delve into the film’s history in commentary, in which AB squad founder Seth Gaven leads the discussion on screen. Given the film’s unusually long history of production, Johnson has plenty of opportunity to talk about when certain sequences were filmed and why. Fun fact: the first frame was the last shot (according to Johnson, a week before the commentary was recorded).
For some reason the comment track is in the setup menu so make sure you check it there before assuming the packaging is wrong like I did at first. Finally, we have three photo galleries: cast and crew, behind-the-scenes shots, location shots, and model photos.
Flickering Myths Rating – Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★