|Stand by Me (Special Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 29 August 2000|
Why this film has fallen out of public consciousness is a mystery. It's one of the three or four best adaptations of a story by Stephen King; the performances by the four kids are uncannily good; it's one of the best depictions of childhood in American movie history; it began a completely new phase in the career of director Rob Reiner. And it's a hell of a good movie, damned near perfect in its own terms.
Furthermore, this DVD includes a remarkably good documentary, 'Walking the Rails: The Summer of Stand by Me," directed by Michael Gillis. Not only are both Rob Reiner and Stephen King interviewed, but so are Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland and even Richard Dreyfuss, who has bookend cameo scenes as Wheaton's character as an adult, and who narrates the movie itself. 'Stand by Me' was clearly a very important project to all of these people. After watching it for the first time -- alone -- King refrained from commenting, remaining alone until he could deal with the powerful emotions the film stirred in him. Many of the incidents and the characters were taken from his own life; anyone who's read "The Body," the novella the movie was based on, must be aware of that. King often includes a lot of personal details in his stories, but that one was especially close to him.
The movie itself seems very personal, and timeless. The setting was changed from Maine, where King grew up, to Oregon, where the movie was shot (although Maine placenames and characteristics were unchanged). It's the late summer of 1959, the last weekend before Gordie Lachance (Wheaton) and his buddies will make the transition from grammar school to junior high. (Not likely that in a small Oregon town at that time -- there would have been grade school and high school, as there was in the small Oregon town where I grew up, but whatever.) He's hanging out in their tree house with his best friend, Chris Chambers (River Phoenix) and their impetuous pal Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman). Another friend, Vern Tessio (Jerry O'Connell), whom they regard with amused tolerance, shows up, and asks breathlessly if they want to see a dead body.
Few things could have impressed them more; they're twelve, and none of them have seen even a dead relative. This dead body is a kid their own age, known to be missing; Vern overheard his hoodlumesque brother (Casey Siemazsko) and a pal talk about finding the body near railroad tracks some ten miles from Castle Rock, their home town.
Gordie, the central character (more so than in King's novella), is still mourning the death of his older brother Denny (John Cusack no less) a few months earlier. Not only did Gordie just about worship Denny, who loved him back, but Denny was by far their parents' favorite. A walk along the rails to a dead body is, if nothing else, distracting.
As the four make their way toward the body, local two-bit dime-store hoodlum Ace Merrill (Kiefer Sutherland), leader of the local would-be delinquents, sets out with his own pals to find the body. Both groups of boys, younger and older, assume that whoever finds the body will be heroes.
As King points out in his comments, all great stories about boys tend to be about journeys -- and the journeys are almost always to greater maturity, wherever else they might lead. 'Stand by Me' isn't quite a coming-of-age story; instead, it's a shedding-of-childhood story. The boys are still boys; they don't think about girls yet, they argue instead over heated issues such as whether Mighty Mouse can beat up Superman, or just what Goofy is. Not all stories about leaving childhood are about reaching adulthood, and neither is 'Stand by Me.' But it's one of the best movies yet on that subject; we take the journey with the boys, and so does the film, as it changes from a comedy to a drama.
But there was drama all along the way to the body, too, mostly in the conversations between Gordie and Chris. Only Chris knows (or really cares) how much Denny's death, and his parents' indifference, has affected Gordie. Only Gordie learns how much always being viewed as a bad boy has affected Chris. In a pair of very powerful scenes, they each break down in the other's arms -- essentially unnoticed by Vern and Teddy.
It's hard to get truly realistic performances out of children this age (and it was O'Connell's first acting job of any sort), but Reiner managed to get four excellent performances. In that extremely interesting documentary, and in the rather less interesting commentary track, Reiner discusses this. He rehearsed the boys for two weeks prior to shooting, essentially teaching them how to act, then walking them through their roles until they felt natural in the parts, and with each other. He points out that in most movies about kids, there are lots of individual takes, cutaways to just the child actor, who's been coached by the director just before rolling the camera. But there are many scenes in 'Stand by Me' featuring all four of the boys -- long takes, too, with a lot of dialog. And the boys are always, but always, perfectly natural.
One of the biggest problems moviemakers have faced (and largely failed to handle) in adapting Stephen King is that his dialog only seems natural; it's actually stylized, romanticized, heightened, sometimes coarsened. King's greatest trait as a writer is not his plots nor even his characters, but his tone; you like his voice. Thanks to the screenplay by Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans and to Reiner's sensitive direction, that voice is perfectly captured; we're in Stephen King's world.
It's a bit idealized, of course. Within any group of four boys of that age, there are certain tensions, jockeying for position, minor rivalries, as well as the deeply intense loyalty the film shows. This is childhood in memory, realistic but somewhat romanticized. It's truthful, but it's elevated truth.
The documentary does not shy away from a bitterly tragic coincidence. The adult Gordie Lachance (Richard Dreyfuss, a friend of Reiner's since they were 15) is prompted to tell this story when he learns that Chris Chambers, now a lawyer, stepped in to try to settle an argument, and was killed. Chris, of course, was played as a boy (we never see him any older) by River Phoenix, whose own life ended all too soon. It's clear that everyone interviewed had a very high opinion of Phoenix, and that the making of 'Stand by Me' was partly like the story it tells. The four boys did bond, and Reiner bonded with all four of them. Reiner says he has a hard time watching the end of the film, when Chris literally vanishes on screen. (In Gordie's imagination.)
This is an outstanding movie, and it has been given outstanding treatment on DVD. The excellent score includes many soft-rock standards of the 1950s including the title track; the score can even be played as an isolated track. The disc also includes a video of Benny King singing "Stand by Me," and it's as warm, nostalgic and truthful as the movie itself. (And also features River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton.)