Retro Review: ‘Smithereens’
During the 1980’s New York City was one of the global hubs for punk rock. The Big Apple was producing acts like: the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, Blondie and the Ramones. All the while the club CBGB provided a space for audiences to be introduced to the newest up-and-comers in the genre. In 1982 the dark underbelly of this world was explored by director Susan Seidelman in her debut feature Smithereens.
Ambitious and narcissistic, Wren has moved to New York in order to make a name for herself in the city’s punk scene. But what she discovers is that all the top acts are in the process of migrating to the West Coast. A van-dwelling naive, newcomer to New York develops feelings for her which she has no problem abusing when she needs a place to say. But her focus is on Eric (played by punk rock icon Richard Hell), a member of the one-hit band the Smithereens, who is looking to reignite his career. He promises to make Wren his manager in exchange to helping him, in his goal of making it to LA. In the end the quest to make it to the top of the punk world only ends with Wren being alone.
This film may have been made in the early 80’s, but stylistically it feels very much like a movie to come from the 90’s indie boom which it paved the way for. With only a small budget and few resources, director Susan Seidelman took the streets with a guerrilla filmmaking approach following her leading lady Susan Berman. This approach makes Smithereens a realistic and believable film which puts the viewer right in this world. Bucking tradition for these types of narratives, Wren is not a plucky underdog who eventually achieves her dreams or becomes a better person. She is a stubborn ego-driven woman who viewers will not find particularly likable. But thanks to the charisma of Berman, the character is one the audience will watch with fascination. Inevitably her poor naive decision making does get the better of her as in the end she loses everything.
Serving as a sort of time capsule for the punk rock movement during this era, while also being ahead of its time Smithereens is a fascinating flick. No frills or romanticism just a cool movie. Susan Seidelman’s unique cinematic look at the East Village became the first indie film from the US to compete at Cannes paving the way for other films of its ilk. Smithereens is funny, sad, and most of all just plain cool.