A celluloid time capsule of Chicago
Forgotten film about a South Side band's struggles resurfaces at Siskel Center
03/28/2012 10:00 PM
When lists are compiled of the best movies filmed in Chicago, the selections are obvious.
Call Northside 777, Medium Cool, Cooley High, The Blues Brothers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Dark Knight are always name-checked. Even more obscure flicks such as horror great Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Philip Kaufman’s early independent effort Goldstein find slots.
Another lesser-known film must be included on these lists.
Released in 1978, Stony Island tells the story of a young band from the South Side neighborhood of Stony Island led by an idealistic guitarist, an energetic singer and an older mentor who aspire to great heights. It’s a Chicago film through-and-through: rough, gritty and optimistic with an odd sense of humor and pumped with impeccable rhythm and blues music.
The film created waves. Critics hailed it. Festivals lauded it. Unfortunately, Stony Island fell into obscurity in the 30-plus years to follow, not even garnering a home video release.
This is about to change.
Stony Island is receiving long-overdue recognition this spring. A restored and re-mastered version of the film is finally being released on DVD in April, and the Gene Siskel Film Center will devote two nights to it next week. The special showcases will finally cement the film’s place both in Chicago’s film history and in the history of contemporary cinema.
Overlook the poor character development, clichés, odd narration and a bizarre, unbelievable tangent involving body-switching at a morgue and you’ll find a story with surprising depth that probes socio-economic disparities between the wealthier north and poorer south sides of Chicago, urban blight and unemployment issues that cross racial lines. The multi-racial make-up of the band speaks volumes, as well.
As a snapshot of Chicago in the late Seventies, Stony Island is beyond compare. The film plays out in all corners of the South and near South Sides, from the bright lights of State Street and now-closed Rush Street clubs to stark Loop environs and decrepit back alleys of Stony Island. Fujimoto captures them all with vivid, punchy cinematography. The snapshot extends to background events, as well, with the death and funeral of Mayor Richard J. Daley playing a major part in the story.
Stony Island’s real star is the music, though.
Half of the film is comprised of the band, dubbed The Stony Island Band, in rehearsals and on-stage. The footage is amazing, as to be expected from ace session musicians who played with Bo Diddley, Etta James, Little Walter, Bobby Womack, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat, Ry Cooder and more.
Casting accomplished musicians as opposed to actors miming moves was a wise choice. Stony Island breathes and sings with unparalleled authenticity. Highly recommended.