Johnny Suede is that odd combination of surrealism and melodrama to the point that it was humorous—though I’m not quite sure whether the humor was always intentional. Made back in 1991, the same year Brad Pitt (the main actor) dazzled audiences with his performance in Thelma & Louise, was the film debut of Tim DiCillo, who’s made some pretty good and not-so-good independent films, like Living in Oblivion (1995) and Delirious (2006).
Johnny Suede is perhaps best known for testing out Pitt’s lead-role capabilities, which he did quite well with the given script and direction of the film. He plays a down-on-his-luck musician named, eponymously, Johnny Suede, who has a giant pompadour and constantly wears suede shoes that were dropped on his head while walking home one night.
The film’s obviously set in an urban setting, but the exact place and time is anyone’s guess. The city looks deserted most of the time, with snapshots of extras walking sparsely on the sidewalk. My guess was that it was some sort of futuristic dystopia, though it really had nothing to do with government, or perhaps it was a vision of what Detroit would look like in a decade from when it was made. Invariably, though, the setting places an integral role in giving the lasting impression of urban isolation and desolation that’s manifested in the psychology of Johnny as the film progresses.
Very quickly, you pick up on the sense that Johnny’s musical proclivities revolve around trying to immolate his idol Ricky Nelson, who was not only not well known in the early nineties but who’s career had petered out nearly twenty years previously. Granted, Nelson is considered a rock n’ roll legend by many for good reason, but it’s uncertain why Johnny Suede’s character is willing to put on this whole dress and attitude to mirror Nelson, though I interpret it as being Suede’s insatiable desire to capture something within his past that is constantly elusive.
But to get back to the main plot. It’s pretty much an hour and a half of Brad Pitt’s pouty face and ridiculous hair haplessly trying to start up a musical career with absolutely no luck. Despite it being a movie about a musician, there’s only probably a handful of scenes where Suede is even playing a guitar. It’s mostly about his failed relationships with these two girls, Darlette (the one that got away) and Yvonne (the one he pushes away).
Ultimately, you’re led to conclude that either Johnny Suede’s either a musical genius or a complete idiot. While he could be both, a genius at the guitar and just absolutely stupid with social interactions, but since you’re not really given many opportunities to see him play, especially not in front of a crowd, then it seems as if he’s just an idiot.
It’s not surprising to known that many found the saving grace of the movie to be Pitt’s topless, barely-clothed scenes back when he was only 28, but as DiCillo’s directorial debut it was pretty cinematically interesting. It had elements of surrealism, going in and out of a dream narrative, while also capturing a truly unique character study in the mind of a man-child unwilling to grow up from his past.
But whether you watch the film simply because it had Brad Pitt in it, or because you like surrealism, or that you enjoy fictional musical biopics, Johnny Suede is sure to have at least one thing that you’ll have to tilt your head back and go, huh.
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