Summer Days, Summer Nights originally went by the title Summertime, as in the song by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, which is interesting because that’s exactly the vibe it has – beautiful young people all just hanging and chilling and cooling about, enjoying the heat, soaking up the rays and basking in the hotness of youth.
Maybe the title changed because Ed Burns’s film is set nine years before Jeff Townes and Will Smith had their hit. Maybe the original title makes too ironic the lack of black faces. Who knows? Whatever the reason, here we are on Long Island in 1982 and following a group of six young people – likeable everyman and wannabe writer JJ (Pico Alexander) working his way through the summer to finance his way through college; Debbie (Lindsey Morgan), slightly older, uninhibited, wrestling with the free spirit attitude she’s adopted; Frankie (Anthony Ramos), a diehard romantic nursing a broken heart; Terry (Amadeus), a would-be songwriter; Winky (Rita Volk), whose summer is being ruined by her rich boyfriend’s patent lack of interest; Suzy (Caitlin Stasey), back in town licking her wounds after a failed attempt at escaping its orbit.
They’re all good-looking and dressed almost entirely throughout in beachwear. Writer/director Burns (who also plays JJ’s likeable, wry dad) follows them in guileless fashion through the official summer – the Memorial Day to Labor Day weekends. Relationships and broken relationships, love and lust, swimming and fireworks, hearts poured out, advice given and ignored.
Burns was often referred to as the Irish-Catholic Woody Allen when he started out making New York ensemble movies like 1995’s The Brothers McMullen and 1996’s She’s the One. He’s more in the Richard Linklater territory of Dazed and Confused in Summer Days, Summer Nights and pulls off the feat of having made a film that manages to be engrossing without a whole lot happening. Like Linklater, his artfulness consists in how well he’s hiding his artfulness. This is a film full of people it’s easy to like and whose little dramas mean a lot to us, because they mean a lot to them.
Likeable, self-effacing and smart JJ, the writer, is probably modelled on Burns himself, who was also a teenager on Long Island in the 1980s. I suspect Burns shunted the action from the later 1980s, when he was 17/18, to 82 because that was really the last summer when you could make out in the back seat of a car without worrying about Aids. Innocent times, innocent film.
In keeping with that vibe, the soundtrack is full of feelgood summer tunes of the era, starting with Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime (from 1970, in fact, but as perennial as a Christmas single), and every few minutes up pop The Go-Go’s or The Pretenders, or The Cure from the era of pop-music radio, while on the streets guys are still wearing the Rolling Stones logo on the back of their jackets (non-ironically), girls are in teeny-tiny shorts, a guy in a croptop is sighted and no one giggles.
If it’s daytime, it’s sunny, and Burns’s regular DP William Rexer makes sure we know about it. A couple of emotional bumps excepted, there is no tragedy in Summer Days, Summer Nights, no mystery. It seems so straightforward and straight-up that the temptation is to read it as a spoof. Perhaps it is. But there’s also room for the idea that it’s a fantasy, of life lived in an eternal summertime, when being young and sexy is enough, and who cares what September brings.
A great return to form for Burns, in other words.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021