Writer/director John Sayles is a driving force of independent American cinema. Taking his funds from his work as a script doctor for films such as “Piranha” and “Apollo 13,” the maverick filmmaker makes heartfelt and hard-hitting indie projects such as “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “The Brother from Another Planet,” and “Lone Star.” His films are painstakingly researched and rooted in very specific times and places. They examine marginalized communities with compassion but do not always resolve the predicaments their protagonists face. Among his 18 features, Sayles has not fully embraced “Baby It’s You” because it is his first—and last—movie made under a studio contract. Despite its troubled production history, “Baby It’s You” is one of Sayles’ finest films.
Forty years later, “Baby It’s You” remains one of the most genuine coming-of-age stories. It is one of the few films to explore the liminal space between high school and adulthood. “Baby It’s You” captures an emotional time period that throws young people completely off their axes. The sudden life changes after high school graduation provoke the main characters’ anxieties about time, namely their youth slipping away and facing an unknown future. The 1960s setting magnifies these struggles, an era teetering towards social revolutions and new feminist attitudes.
On the surface, “Baby It’s You” appears to be a classic good girl and bad boy tale. In the suburbs of Trenton, New Jersey, Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) is the daughter of a Jewish doctor who dreams of becoming an actress. She falls for Sheik (Vincent Spano), an Italian semi-greaser and the son of a garbageman who was kicked out of his former school. Despite their differences, they share a fervid romance.
At the time of the film’s 1983 release, American cinema reminisced about the seemingly idealistic 1950s and early 1960s—the innocent years before the Vietnam war, Watergate, the recession, and other events that withered national pride in the coming decades. The first half of “Baby It’s You” evokes nostalgic films such as “Diner” or “The Wanderers.” The costumes are conservative, closer to the trends of the early 1960s, with the girls in long skirts and knee-high socks and the boys in refined slacks and ties. Sayles’ soundtrack features sugary pop songs from the era, such as “Wooly Bully” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Yet Sayles was not interested in romanticizing the past. He subverts the nostalgia film genre through two distinct devices: the use of anachronistic Bruce Springsteen music and dividing the narrative between the couple’s senior year in 1966 and 1967 when Jill attends theatre school at Sarah Lawrence and Sheik works as a dishwasher in Miami.
According to the book John Sayles by David R. Shumway, Paramount was expecting a lurid teenage sex comedy in the vein of “Animal House” or “Porky’s.” The studio felt “Baby It’s You” was lengthy and too dour and suggested that the second half be reworked or cut entirely: “As far as Amy [Robinson] and I were concerned, the only thing that made it interesting was that it did go on to college and that it wasn’t just another nostalgia piece,” Sayles told Kenneth M. Chanko in John Sayles: Interviews. The book Hollywood and the Baby Boom: A Social History details how Sayles threatened to leave the project entirely or remove his name from the credits unless he was given control over the final edit.
While Sayles’ defies expectations of a period film by adding modern Bruce Springsteen songs, their kinship with “Baby It’s You” is easily recognizable. Springsteen’s songs are about teenage characters from small, blue-collar towns with big ambitions. They struggle to make their dreams real in a cruel and capitalistic world. Springsteen expresses Sheik’s working-class ennui and desire for upward mobility by escaping the prison of the Garden State. Springsteen’s razor-sharp lyrics and impassioned vocals fracture Sheik’s brooding, macho outer shell, allowing his internal conflict to resonate clearly with the audience. Sheik is a street punk that could easily find a home on Springsteen’s 1975 album Born to Run. The album has a late 1950s and early 1960s aesthetic that matches the first half of “Baby It’s You,” one that is culled from the crystalline sounds of Phil Spector and the hot rod ferocity of “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Sheik models himself after another New Jersey icon: Frank Sinatra. With his slicked-back hair and suave suits, Sheik glides through the cafeteria to Springsteen’s buoyant “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.” There’s a roughness to Sheik’s swagger that the film progressively reveals—brutish anger, sexual desire, and anti-authoritarian behavior that recalls Marlon Brando, who Springsteen references in the song. The funky “E Street Shuffle” has colorful, proletarian characters nicknamed Little Angel and Power, similar to those in the rough-and-tumble bar that Sheik brings Jill to on their first date.
The thumping Bo Diddley beat of “She’s the One” articulates the increasing gulf between Jill and Sheik as they inch closer to graduation, putting the entire East Coast between them. Sheik’s yearning for Jill transforms into the flaming anger of “Adam Raised a Cain.” Springsteen’s lacerating screams and wailing guitar motivates Sheik’s road trip to find Jill at Sarah Lawrence. All of Springsteen’s songs are accompanied by dynamic camera movements and editing that move to the beat of the propulsive sounds, guiding the audience visually and sonically through the characters’ overwhelming emotional journey.
When Sheik and Jill skip school to go on a joyride to Asbury Park, we see a sign over the Lower Trenton Bridge that reads “Trenton Makes The World Takes.” This slogan does not just honor the factories in the area but echoes the themes that tie Springsteen’s music and Sayles’ “Baby It’s You.” Both artists depict young people confronting the grown-up realities of class, work, and love for the first time. They discover that the adult world can be crushing and that it is very difficult to achieve the goals you fantasized about as a teenager. Adulthood crystallizes Jill and Sheik’s class differences. Their whirlwind romance can only function in high school because it is what Sayles describes as “the last bastion of true democracy in our society, where you have classes and eat lunch with the guy who’s going to be picking up your garbage later in life.” They are separated by states and move in entirely different circles: Jill flirts with boys from Princeton and shoots pool with her affluent female classmates, while Sheik spends time with his co-workers cleaning dishes in the back of a kitchen.
Other coming-of-age stories preserve the main characters as idealistic teenagers. Grease ends with Sandy and Danny dinga-dong-ing into monogamous bliss inside a flying car. “America Graffiti” ends with a title card that explains what happened to the group of friends after graduation; some of their fates involve drunk driving and the Vietnam war, but the audience does not witness these tragic events. The film still leaves you with that breezy feeling of a magical summer cruising down the Hollywood strip listening to classic rock and roll on the radio. By taking his story past graduation, Sayles is able to closely examine Jill and Sheik’s changing attitudes as they grow further apart.
Rosanna Arquette transmits the difficulties of college life in her spirited performance. Her histrionic effect makes it clear that Jill is constantly performing for others and trying on new identities, like costumes in a play. Arquette conveys Jill’s deep insecurity in highly comical and erratic moments where Jill turns her affectionate memories with Sheik into fodder for drunken jokes or emotional recall exercises in her acting classes. She dismisses Sheik as “an insane character in high school.”
Teen movies typically frame college as an exciting, transformative experience where you can be cooler than you ever were in high school. “Baby It’s You” acknowledges that college is more often a time of profound loneliness and self-doubt: “It’s different here, there’s a lot of pressure. I don’t know how you’re supposed to act,” Jill tells Sheik on the phone. Gradually, she starts adopting the hippie culture by wearing jeans and smoking pot. No longer a schoolgirl giggling about marrying Sheik, now she talks about Ivy League boys who fuck with their socks on. She led her high school play, but now she doesn’t even make the cast list.
When Jill visits Sheik in Miami on spring break, she discovers that in addition to dishwashing, he lip-syncs classic songs for bored, elderly diners. Jill watches Sheik pitifully “sing” Frank Sinatra’s “Mr. Success,” an ironic title juxtaposing his hollow life. There is silence between the former couple when they return to Sheik’s apartment. Adding to the tension are the old yearbook photographs of Jill on the walls—glaring reminders that Sheik has not let go of their relationship. The uncomfortable sense that they are trying to recreate what they once had but is now lost continues throughout their lovemaking. The bright neon lights in Sheik’s room reflect the artificiality of it all: their rekindled relationship and Sheik’s profession.
Spano shines in the final act when Sheik confronts Jill at Sarah Lawrence. He showcases Sheik’s youthful energy turning into bitter desperation. Since Sheik is unhappy with his current circumstances, he wants to recreate the connection he had with Jill in high school. His typically coiffed hair hangs over his wide-eyed expression—an intense look of despair, searching for the girl he used to know but no longer recognizes in her new college environment. But Jill’s harsh declaration, “We’re not in high school anymore!” swiftly expunges his nostalgia for their past romance, which, although genuine, was nothing more than a teenage dalliance.
“Baby It’s You” ends with the prom moment that Jill and Sheik never had. Unlike most teen movies, their senior prom was not a magical and romantic night. Sheik was suspended and forbidden to attend, choosing to commit an act of petty crime instead; Jill helped her friend recover from a suicide attempt and learned that Sheik cheated on her. Now at her college dance, Jill and Sheik gently sway to a cover of “Strangers in the Night,” an emotive ballad that they once danced to in a Jersey Shore diner. The hippie band’s version eventually bleeds into Frank Sinatra’s legendary croon, bridging the two short years that have changed so much of Jill and Sheik’s lives. For one bittersweet moment, they are frozen in time as they hold each other close. Jill and Sheik know they can never recapture the past and that they have no future as a couple—they may very well never see each other again. The tender and melancholy ending reiterates why “Baby It’s You” is an exquisite coming-of-age film.
Forty years later, “Baby It’s You” deserves recognition for defying studio expectations of the teen film genre. Sayles interrogates our affinity for nostalgia and the idea that our teenage experiences, which cinema often depicts as difficult but ultimately sublime, are far more trying.
A complex portrait of growing up, “Baby It’s You” explores an important but largely underrepresented time period in young people’s lives, when you romanticize your school memories and confront your destiny.
Note: Caroline Madden will host a screening of “Baby It’s You” in Asbury Park on Sunday, April 16th. Get tickets here.