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Helluva Summer

Murder, drugs, group sex, Reggie Jackson, and wall-to-wall disco: Sounds like New York in 1977. Welcome to Spike Lee's idea of fun.


Summer fun? Somebody forgot to tell Spike Lee, whose new movie, Summer of Sam, is a blast from the gritty past. It all takes place during what Lee calls "that crazy, insane, chaotic summer of 1977." Anyone who lived in the city then can instantly recall the harrowing run of events: a blistering heat wave that seemed to last forever; a citywide July blackout that inspired widespread looting; the slow-motion terror of the .44-caliber killer, later known as Son of Sam, who ratcheted up the hysteria by writing demonic letters to Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin. It was the year punk broke and Studio 54 boogied open. And in the Bronx, the flamboyant Reggie Jackson arrived in right field, and the Yanks fought all the way to their first Series victory in fifteen seasons. Summer of Sam breathlessly encompasses all these raging currents, but the movie is audacious as much for its timing as for its storytelling. Lee has made a serious, violent, and moral film at a time when the moviegoing Zeitgeist prefers undemanding froth like Austin Powers and Big Daddy. And he's done it for Disney, no less. The film stars Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito, and John Leguizamo, but as with most Spike Lee joints, the real star is the director. It's his bleakest, harshest film since that other summer sizzler, 1989's Do the Right Thing, though this time the issue isn't race. Sam interweaves the terrifying killing spree of David Berkowitz with the sexual and emotional unraveling of a group of low-rent Bronx Italian friends. Lee clearly wants to be considered part of the pantheon of authentic New York chroniclers, people like Pete Hamill and Sidney Lumet, and Summer of Sam bravely invades territory owned outright by Martin Scorsese. With its nearly all-white cast and Italian-American setting, Lee is letting the world know, Nothing in New York is foreign to me.

The city has changed drastically over the past two decades, and so has the life of Spike Lee. The bantam son of Brooklyn now resides in an Upper East Side mansion, which he and his wife bought a year ago from Jasper Johns. The price tag, courtyard and fountain included, was $7.25 million. At the same time, he still refuses to go completely Hollywood, making his movies Kubrick-style, with studio money but without surrendering creative control.

Today, Lee is in the Madison Avenue office of his advertising agency, Spike/DDB. Commercial work (for products as disparate as Domino's Pizza and the Navy) pays many of the bills and frees Lee from the worst pressures of commercial Hollywood. He has just flown back from the Knicks' latest win in Indianapolis, landing in a private plane at 3 a.m. Without his trademark baseball cap, he's showing a bit of gray in his short brown hair. After quickly checking out a rough cut for a new ad, he ejects the tape from the VCR, yawns, and is ready to talk about Summer of Sam, whose grim tone, so out of step with the city's current fat-and-happy vibe, suggests that he intends it to be a comment on contemporary New York's misplaced sense of self-satisfaction.

Chris Smith: Why make this movie now? The city feels pretty good about itself --

Spike Lee: Says who? Ask the Louimas. You might believe that Giuliani hype if you want to, but that's not necessarily the way everybody feels. If you're the haves, I guess that's how you feel. But I made the film now because this is the story I wanted to tell.

You open with Jimmy Breslin, in the present day, saying that the bad old days are gone and everything's different in New York now. Is that meant to be sarcastic?

S.L.: Jimmy's a good friend of mine, and when I think of New York, I think of him. Not just the fact that he's a great journalist, but the way he talks, his voice. What he says in the movie is a little tongue-in-cheek.

So you're saying the city has changed only superficially?

S.L.: New York City is a lot better fiscally than it was in '77. It's a lot cleaner than it was back then. But affordable housing? Forget about it now. The Board of Ed was better back then, and that's not to slam Rudy Crew, either. If you don't have any money, it's a lot rougher to live in New York City now than it was. People say crime is down, but I gotta take that with a grain of salt. In order for crime to be down, we need the Street Crime Unit? I don't know how that balances. There has to be a way where a police force can protect the community without being seen as an occupying army. And it's not an exaggeration to say the majority of people of color in this city view the NYPD like that.

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