Februrary 3, 2013

Breaking Away (1979)
Starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley

Comments:   Breaking Away is a movie that was a really big deal to people who grew up in a certain era.  Chances are that if you were a teenager in the late 70's, specifically if you were a teenager in the midwest in the late 70's, well you probably know and love this movie with all of your heart.  It is one of those movies that I am guessing is kind of like the late 70's equivalent of The Breakfast Club.  For people who were a specific age at a specific point in time, I am guessing it is known and loved by just about everyone.

However, if you DIDN'T grow up in the late 70's, well I am guessing then we have quite a different story.  Chances are that if you are under the age of 30, heck maybe even if you are under the age of 40, odds are that you have probably never even heard of this movie before.

I was born in 1974.  I was five years old when Breaking Away came out in 1979.  And it was never even on my radar when I was a kid.  Seriously, it was not even anywhere NEAR my radar.  You could have told me that there was a really good coming of age story about poor kids who grew up in Indiana, and one of them wanted to be professional cyclist, and I probably would have thought you were talking about Hoosiers.  And then I would have corrected you that Hoosiers was actually about basketball, not cycling.  And I would have thought you were an idiot.

Want to know how far Breaking Away was from my radar?  Well this is a movie that very nearly won Best Picture.  It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1980.  It is also one of two big movies from the 70's that starred Jackie Earle Haley.  And his other big movie (The Bad News Bears) is one of my top three all time favorite movies.

And do you want to know when I saw Breaking Away for the first time?

Last week.  I saw it for the first time last week on AMC.  

Now since I have only seen Breaking Away once, obviously I can't sit here and regale you with trivia about it like I can for other movies like White Men Can't Jump or Top Secret.  I just don't know it all that well to be able to say very much about it.  

What I DO know is that I had heard about it for years prior to ever actually seeing it.  "Hey remember Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears?  Well he was in another movie too!"   I had heard it was good, and I knew that part of it was in some way about cycling.  But other than that I really didn't know anything about it.  I honestly had no idea who was in it other than Jackie Earle Haley.  I had no idea it was set in Indiana.  I had no idea that it was one of Dennis Quaid's first movies.  And since I don't really care about cycling, it was never really all that high on my list of movies that I had any interest in.  It was just one of those movies where I figured "Okay, maybe I will see it one day, maybe I won't.  But if I never get around to seeing it, who cares.  Because who cares about a movie about stupid bicycling."


Now batting for the Cutters... number three... Steve Nash Kelly Leak.

Well like I said, I finally saw Breaking Away for the first time last week on AMC.  I saw that it was going to be on one night so I Tivo'd it.  And then I sat down to watch it with my wife.  

I really had no idea what to expect.  

All I knew was that Kelly Leak was in it and there would probably be bicycling.  And since it was set in the late 70's, there would probably be some fantastic 70's hair.

Dennis Quaid('s hair) is here!

I watched Breaking Away for the first time last week and I really liked it.  It wasn't the greatest movie in the world, and obviously you probably had to grow up with this movie to really be enamored with it, but I thought it was a neat little time capsule of 1979.  I mean, you watch this movie and you REALLY feel like you are a poor kid growing up in Indiana in the late 70's.  There is a level of authenticity here that most movies try for but never achieve.  But with Breaking Away, you absolutely feel like you are right there in this movie.  And I should know, because I remember enough about the late 70's to remember what they felt like (and more importantly, what they looked like.)

And this is exactly what 1979 looked like

In theory, Breaking Away is a movie about cycling.  That is what you will see if you read any review of it.  It is a movie about four kids ("The Cutters") who grow up poor in Indiana, and they fight with the nearby college kids from Bloomington.  And they spend their days doing nothing but swimming at the local rock quarry.  In truth they are basically bums.  They don't really have a lot to look forward to other than doing nothing and being bums for the rest of their lives.

Hanging out at the local rock quarry

Oh yeah, except for the fact that one of the kids has dreams of being a professional cyclist.  He dreams of becoming a famous cyclist so he can move out of Indiana and travel to Italy.  And then he can race bicycles for the rest of his life.

Dave (Dennis Christopher) trying to learn Italian

Like I said, in theory this is a movie about cycling.   But don't be turned off by that description, because it really isn't a sports movie at all.  In truth, this is a movie about coming of age.  It is about four kids who are out of school, and who are trying to find their way in the world, and about all the obstacles that poor kids face when they get out of high school and they realize that the world doesn't really care about them anymore.  To call this a movie about cycling is kind of missing the point.  This isn't a sports movie at all, it is a movie about what it was like to be a poor kid in Indiana in the late 70's.  Like I said before, the authenticity in this movie is quite heartbreaking.  

If you would like a 90's equivalent to Breaking Away, this movie reminds me a lot of Dazed and Confused.

Welcome to the late 70's

So I watched Breaking Away for the first time last week, and I thought it was pretty good.  Afterwards, I remember thinking, "Okay I can see why this was on American Movie Classics.  It was actually pretty well done."

My wife asked me what I thought of it and I said to her, "Well it's not going to ever win any awards or anything, but I can see why people would like it.  It has a good heart to it."

Of course then I went on the internet and I read a little about the history of  this movie.  And I found out that I had underestimated it quite a bit.  You see, I had no idea that Breaking Away had once been a Best Picture nominee.  I had no idea that many people consider it to be the best movie of 1979.  I had no idea that, among people of a certain age, this movie is as beloved as Inception or The Godfather or Ferris Bueller or The Breakfast Club.  In fact I was quite shocked when I realized how ridiculously I had underestimated what a following it has and how many fans it actually has out there.

Breaking Away is so beloved that Entertainment Weekly recently had a reunions issue specifically dedicated to it

And so this is why I wanted to include it on my list.  

Breaking Away.  A movie that I completely wrote off and underestimated for nearly 30 years.  And if I wrote it off and underestimated it, I am quite sure that many other people have written it off and underestimated it too.  After all, I am the guy who has generally seen just about everything.  And if it took me (a guy who actually did grow up somewhat in the late 70's) thirty years to care enough about this movie to actually see it, I can't imagine how rarely it has been seen by people who are younger than me.

So there you go.  There is my gift to anyone who grew up in the late 70's and who has a soft spot in their heart for Breaking Away.

Maybe now people who are younger than you will actually see it too.  Maybe now they will get a glimpse into what your life was like as a floppy haired poor kid back in the 1970's.  If nothing else, maybe they will think you had cool cars back then and that you had a really badass swimming hole.

This is where you could go swimming in the late 70's.  Jealous much?

* My favorite IMDB user reviews about Breaking Away:

The best film of 1979 - 4 April 2010
Few low budget ensemble films (or any films, for that matter) have ever clinched the love that fans hold for Breaking Away. No one should really care about the stinky humid summer Bloomington, Indiana drama peopled with down and out townies who despise, and alternatively long for, the harbored, segregated collegiate life of the Indiana University student populace sneering at them from their own backyards. We witness a most unlikely story of comeuppance, an even more unlikely college administrative act of altruism and fraternal good-sportsmanship: the townies are invited to compete in the Little 500 (a cycle race which has today earned it's own enormous velodrome). Venture to guess that the little guys face foes insurmountable, grievances, the derailment of woman's lure, bad luck, discrimination, infighting and reconciliation. Loosely aw-whateverly, they band together in a duel against an enemy insurmountable. Even in the final act, they fight, poke, punch, and holler at each other, never changing and never ceasing. If you don't love this underdog film, and shed cheering tears for its gift, you don't love life nor film. Period.

A film to treasure!!! - 5 January 2000
Breaking Away is a picture that is better than the sum of its parts. Oh, its parts are wonderful. The writing is sharp, observant, and funny (It won an Oscar!), the acting is superb (how Paul Dooley was nixed a nomination never mind the award I'll never know), and it is a well shot film. But its charms go even deeper. It is the story of four young men in their late teens, who are staring adulthood in the face after a year of leisure in the "small town" of Bloomington, Indiana, and how they deal with watching successful college kids pass them by. It is also about a young man in search of an identity (including that of a Italian bicycle racer), and of a family that is loving and supportive, almost in spite of itself. All these add up to a richly enjoyable, deeply moving family picture that gives us many moments to treasure (a large number include Paul Dooley as the frustrated and confused, but eventually loving father). Like other sports movies (the lead character races bicycles), it has a contest at the end, and like many much poorer ones, it ends with triumph. But we cheer not only for these immensely likeable "cutters," but for ourselves, for being treated to this bittersweet, touching, and wonderful movie.

Sweet but not saccharine - 26 May 2002
This film was a pleasant surprise. No sex, no violence, no special effects. Just an incredibly literate and humorous script (which won an Oscar for Steve Tesich) and fantastic performances by the four leads. This is a film for those who still believe that good cinema requires meaningful dialogue and acting that is achingly real in its sincerity. Don't get me wrong: sex and violence have a very real and justifiable place in film; but this movie would have suffered from such a gratuitous inclusion. Peter Yates, the director, has done a fantastic job of pacing the film, and the score, consisting mostly of Rossini overtures, and excerpts from Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony (#4 in A Major, Op. 90), is an inspired touch, adding precisely the right atmosphere. This is the kind of low-budget triumph that the film community constantly extols for P.R. purposes, yet never supports with actual awards.

Charming Sleeper - 15 July 2000
I went to see this movie when it first came out. We had decided to go to a double feature of two movies that we had never heard of, knowing that in that day and age, a double feature meant that at least one, if not both movies, had to be pretty awful. The first film was Starting Over with Burt Reynolds, and it was fairly good. So my friends were sure that the other would have to be terrible, but we had nothing better to do, so I convinced them to stay. Before three lines of dialogue I was absolutely hooked. I have seen it at least twenty times and the witty dialogue and rapport of the characters gets me every time. The music accents the film beautifully. The cinematography is gorgeous. But the story is what really matters. Four guys finding there way in a place where they feel little hope for the future, one a dreamer whose dreams are crushed, but he finds the spirit to pick up and start dreaming again. Delightful all the way around.

Great coming of age story. - 3 August 2002
Breaking Away tells the story of four teenagers on the threshold of manhood and the troubles they have in adapting to the pressures that are increasingly coming to bear upon them. Dave, Michael, Cyril and Moocher spends their days in the water filled limestone pits ruminating on where their life is taking them. To the local college students they are nothing more than "cutters", townies hanging onto to the past glory of their high school years. However, they see themselves in the prime of their lives, enjoying each day as though summer will never end and only sometimes fearing what the future may hold for them.

Things are brought to a head through Michael (Dennis Christopher), a cycling phenomenon obsessed with all things Italian (much to the chagrin of his father). His misadventures with his cycling bring him into contact with his hopes, fears and the future. His experiences bring him closer to his friends and his father and show him a world beyond the small town in which he lives. To paraphrase his father (an actual stone 'cutter') during one touching scene in the film "I don't want to see my son grow up in the holes we cut.."

Breaking Away is a wonderful film that is beautifully shot and treats the trials of a teenager on the verge of adulthood with respect and dignity (something that cannot be said for most teenage films nowadays). The dialogue, particularly between Micheal and his father, was wonderful and shows that families can be dysfunctional without being abrasive. While Dennis Christopher was the standout actor as Michael, he is well supported by an ensemble cast including a very young (and very fit looking) Dennis Quaid. If you're looking for an uplifting film that isn't overly sentimental, Breaking Away is the film for you.

Highest praise! - 1 July 2003
Timeless movie that hits the timeless social themes. Rich/poor, educated/uneducated, close knit family/broken home, protestant/catholic, dreaming of/settling for, pragmatism/altruism, all these were expressed.

The movie uses the term "cutters" as a derogatory term used by the college kids towards the townies. It is developed later in the movie that "cutters" refers to the many quarries and stone cutting that used to employ much of the town, and which supplied the stone to build the college. The most powerful scene in the movie is when the used car salesman father explains to his son why his son has opportunity he never had. The father also has the funniest scene in the movie which left him incapacitated muttering "refund, refund!".

Forget the cycling. They could have been riding lawnmowers and this movie would have been worth watching. If you enjoy character driven movies, this is one not to miss!

Breaking Away at the IMDB

Breaking Away at Wikipedia

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