Directed by Patrick Read Johnson.
Starring John Francis Daley, Austin Pendleton, Colleen Camp, Neil Flynn, Emmi Chen, Steven Coulter, and Justin Mentell.
5-25-77, Patrick Read Johnson’s autobiographical love letter to growing up on late 60s and 70s cinema, has finally seen its official release. It took him nearly 20 years to make the movie, given delays of various kinds, and now it’s out on Blu-ray in an edition that includes a c commentary track, three image galleries, and a post-screening Q&A from 2013.
I remember hearing about 5-25-77 off and on over the years, and I’ll confess that until I received this Blu-ray for review, I thought it had been released at some point. Little did I know until I did some online reading that the movie has taken over 20 years to see the light of day in its finished form.
The film is an autobiographical recounting of director and writer Patrick Read Johnson’s key childhood and high school years while growing up in a small town in Illinois. Played by John Francis Daley of Freaks and Geeks fame, Johnson is portrayed as a likable nerd whose small circle of friends humor his amateur moviemaking efforts, including a sequel to Jaws, while their school’s top jock eyes him for a pummeling every so often.
Having grown up in the 1970s, I can attest that guys like Johnson really did stick out like sore thumbs back then, especially before Star Wars’ momentous 1977 release. Johnson loves 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, and dreams of meeting special effects whiz Douglas Trumbull some day, an aspiration that his friends don’t really understand.
Neither do his siblings, who mostly go along with his ideas like rigging up a way for his little brother to be suspended from the basement ceiling so he can look like he’s drifting in space. Sadly, his father leaves the family during Johnson’s childhood, and his mother is the one who has to deal with events like Johnson clogging the swimming pool filter with fake blood and guts as part of his Jaws 2 production.
However, his mother appreciates his dreams, and eventually she makes a cold phone call to Herb Lightman, editor of American Cinematographer magazine and a friend of Trumbull and other special effects folks. That leads to a cathartic trip to California, where Johnson witnesses special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars in action, meeting his hero Trumbull, a very wired Industrial Light and Magic head honcho John Dysktra, and even a very young Steven Spielberg. He ends up becoming the first outsider to view early Star Wars footage, which cements his anticipation for the film and leads him to try to rally not only his friends but his whole school to see it on May 25, 1977.
Johnson and his crew did an excellent job of recreating the 70s time period and capturing the film folks of that era, except Spielberg. The actor who plays the famous director looks like a teenage version of Spielberg, rather than the guy who had just recently turned 30. He also doesn’t sound anything like him, which further hampered my suspension of disbelief.
And clocking in at 132 minutes, 5-25-77 feels a bit bloated. It probably could have been cut down a bit, especially some of the special effects-laden sequences that give us a glimpse inside Johnson’s mind but become a little tedious after a while. The opening credits are a bit laborious too. I wanted to say, “I know, I get it, you’ve shown who this guy is. Let’s pick up the pace a bit here.”
However, those are small quibbles for a film that’s not only a love letter to that era and the freaks and geeks who inhabited it, but also a coming of age story as Johnson falls in love with a girl he sees reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey novel in the school cafeteria. He falls hard for her, envisioning a future in which she accompanies him to Hollywood as he seeks to fulfill his dreams, but she isn’t quite on board with that, creating an emotionally complex situation that’s typical of a lot of teenage romances.
It’s a shame that some of the folks involved in this film didn’t get to see its final version, including producer Gary Kurtz (American Graffiti, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back), the real Herb Lightman, and others. I imagine they were at least able to see an early cut, though, so at least there’s that.
In fact, Johnson confirms that at least Lightman was able to do so in the 54-minute Q&A included on this Blu-ray disc. It’s from a 2013 screening of the movie, before all the special effects were finished and even when the music rights hadn’t been cleared yet. (Don’t tell ASCAP!) Johnson relates plenty of stories about the making of the film, including how closely it tracks to reality (short version: very close, but there were liberties taken with the timeline to make it fit a movie narrative).
Johnson also gets a chance to dig deep into the film’s history in the commentary track, which features A.V. Squad founder Seth Gaven shepherding a screen-specific discussion. Given the film’s extraordinarily long production history, Johnson has plenty of opportunities to talk about when certain sequences were shot and why. Fun fact: the opening shot was actually the very last one filmed (a week prior to the commentary being recorded, according to Johnson).
For some reason, the commentary track is in the Setup menu, so make sure you check for it there before assuming that the packaging is incorrect, as I did at first. Finally, we have a trio of photo galleries: cast and crew and behind-the-scenes images, location shots, and model photography.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★