At 25 Double Feature: “Dream a Little Dream”/”Lean on Me”

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March 3, 2014 by billysparrow

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Dream a Little Dream

Released: March 3, 1989

Starring: Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, Meredith Salenger, Jason Robards, Piper Laurie, Harry Dean Stanton

This movie makes my head hurt.

“Dream a Little Dream” stands as the last of the body-switching movies of the late 1980s, and it is easily the most confusing. Granted, I haven’t actually seen “Like Father, Like Son,” but I’m guessing that it’s pretty easy to follow and doesn’t center on the idea of how a husband (Jason Robards) practicing some kind of tai chi with his wife (Piper Laurie) at the same time as a teenage girl (Meredith Salenger) on a bike crashes into a teenage boy (Corey Feldman) running in the opposite direction can cause the husband to, I guess, die for a few days and then only live inside the mind and body of the teenage boy. Maybe I’m wrong, though. “Like Father, Like Son” fans, hit me up.

To its credit, “Dream a Little Dream” does not waste any time in confusing you and daring you to keep watching. The excruciating first four minutes of the movie involve Bobby (Feldman) and Dinger (Corey Haim, who walks with a cane because he injured himself prior to filming while trying to teach his mom how to ride a scooter) engaging in a prolonged, seemingly improvised conversation, aided by jump cuts, about nothing interesting at all (if this was scripted dialogue, that writer should be thrown out of the union). And then that moves into a scene where Jason Robards is dancing and lip syncing to Mel Torme’s version of “Dream a Little Dream” to a theater audience. Can’t wait to see more, right?

Well, there is a lot more after that–nearly two hours’ worth (including a bunch of eight-second scenes toward the beginning that will make you dizzy). And it is a chore to get through (“So is this blog,” you say, because you have no appreciation for what am I trying to do…ingrate). I can’t imagine watching this as a teenager and liking it. But I think I did. Or I at least tolerated it and convinced myself it wasn’t terrible. Actually, I think that last sentence might encapsulate my approach to the entirety of my teen years.

But I digress. Let’s delve into the weirdness of “Dream a Little Dream.” But before I do, let me warn you that I am going to spoil the end of the movie for you. So if you’ve held off watching “Dream a Little Dream” for 25 years and plan on correcting this oversight in either the near or distant future, please stop reading now. The rest of you are now obligated to continue. These are the rules. Do not break them.

Even the trailer seems intended to confuse you. Based on what you see there, you’d probably expect another goofy romp from the Coreys and not a movie where one character declares he is looking for the intersection of dreams and reality in an attempt to achieve immortality. According to Mr. Feldman in his autobiography (yes, I am well read), he was kind of hoodwinked into the movie, as it was originally pitched as a solo starring vehicle for him in which he would “also be allowed to act as a sort of uncredited, unofficial producer.” And he would be given a chance to write his own song for the movie and choreograph a dance scene.

And then the producers decided to cast Corey Haim and that whole plan went out the window. Poor Feld-dog. But at least he still got to do that dance scene. And what a dance scene it is.

If I told you that might be the highlight of the film, that would pretty much say it all, no? Actually, truth be told, I think the highlight might be–no joke–Robards and Feldman lip syncing and dancing in the end credits, so just fast-forward to that and save yourself some time. Or watch this and call it a day.

The bulk of the film centers on the attempts of Robards’s Coleman Ettinger to stay alive in Bobby’s body long enough to find his wife, Gena. How is that going to happen? Hell if I know. No one else seems clear on how that will go down either, but somehow it’s going to involve Lainie (Salenger), who’s dating Bobby’s best friend Joel (although sometimes it seems like Dinger is his best friend and that neither of them particularly likes Joel, because he is an a-hole who wears a fringed blue suede jacket). Bobby must use Coleman’s charm and ability to be a good listener, as well as those super dance moves, to convince Lainie that she is really Gena. And then maybe they can re-create the tai-chi thing and everything will go back to normal. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say. A lot of this stuff is sussed out in dream sequences that are so annoying and filled with echoes that I stopped paying attention.

I don’t think me delving into the plot of this movie is going to be enjoyable for either of us, particularly me, because I just spent two hours watching the damn thing. Let’s just cut to the end, when Joel almost kills Dumas, the school bully. Luckily, Bobby/Coleman gives a terrible speech and tragedy is averted (NSFW language, and not-suitable-for-enjoyment dialogue).

Sadly, all of that takes place while Lainie, who has agreed not to go to sleep per Bobby’s request, is being drugged by her mom and her mom’s boyfriend because, I don’t know, I guess that’s the only way they can think of to shut her up about Bobby and keep her with Joel, whom they like despite the fact he seems intent on date-raping Lainie. And, following up on “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” casting Fee Waybill and Martha Davis in bit parts, “Dream a Little Dream” gives the role of Ron, Lainie’s mom’s boyfriend, to John Ford Coley, of England Dan and John Ford Coley fame (“I’d Really Love to See You Tonight”). He is not a great actor, but I am pleased to see this in his official bio:

In the mid-1980’s, John entered acting.  In “Dream A Little Dream”, Coley performed as the boyfriend of actress Susan Blakely.  In this role he enjoyed playing an antagonist and pushing teen Corie [sic] Feldman down some stairs and spiking Feldman’s girlfriend’s wine to keep her from sneaking out.

Who among us wouldn’t brag about throwing Corey Feldman down some stairs in our official bio? There are quite a few moments during this movie when I wouldn’t have minded taking a crack at it. When Bobby, toward the end of that big speech above, says, “Why don’t you all beat the shit out of me?” I picture a theater full of people looking at one another and saying, “Yeah, why don’t we?” and then rising as one to tear the screen apart. But then I remember that there could never possibly have been a theater full of people watching this movie and I am brought back to reality.

Am I being too harsh on the movie? Maybe. But, wait, let me tell you the ending. Okay, so Lainie falls asleep because she has been slipped drugged wine by John Ford Coley. Bobby dashes over to her house after saving Dumas’s life and tries to wake her up, screaming, breaking her window, and then smearing his blood all over Lainie’s face (this is when John Ford Coley tosses Bobby down the stairs, which seems like the right thing to do, though I might’ve called the cops). Bobby walks back to Coleman’s house while Otis Redding’s “Dreams to Remember plays (one good thing about the movie: it introduced me to that song). So, I guess that means Gena’s lost forever and Coleman will die alone, right?

Nah. Coleman wakes up in his own body, to Bobby’s voice telling him, “You know that stuff I told you about losing Gena and all that? I made it up. Sorry. But it did make for a great story. Ha!”

Really. That’s how it’s all wrapped up. Coleman and Gena are reunited, and they see Bobby and Lainie walking to school together (I guess she’s the type to forgive having blood smeared all over her face). Bobby shares a knowing wink with Coleman, and we’re done.

Perhaps the late, great Roger Ebert put it best when he called “Dream a Little Dream” “aggressively unwatchable.” Nah. Forget about “perhaps.” He got it. This is a bad one. Even I can see that, and I like lots of movies widely considered terrible.

Let’s move on to something more inspirational…

Lean_on_Me_(poster)

Lean on Me

Released: March 3, 1989

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Beverly Todd, Robert Guillaume, Alan North, Lynne Thigpen, Jermaine Hopkins, Karen Malina White

I’m not sure why but I was all revved up to see “Lean on Me.” In fact, though this does not completely make sense for a 12-year-old, I remember seeing “Lean on Me” at a preview screening the week before it opened at the UA Travis movie theater (which would make it the first — and I’m guessing only — movie in the At 25 series that I saw before its official release). I don’t know what would’ve compelled a 12-year-old to be so excited to see a movie about an inner-city New Jersey high school so much that he could not wait until its official release, but I’m almost certain I saw it a week early. Maybe I had just seen “Stand and Deliver” (which I’m just realizing I forgot to write about for At 25 last year; that bums me out) and was hungry for another entry in the inspirational educator genre. Maybe I was excited because Benson (Robert Guillaume) was going to be in it–and Pete (Ethan Phillips) too. Maybe I was developing an interest in sociology? Who knows how my 12-year-old mind worked? Who, for that matter, knows how my 37-year-old mind works?

But whatever the case, I was definitely on board the “Lean on Me” train early. And I have remained on that train for the last 25 years. And almost 17 years ago, I met the real Joe Clark when he spoke at my college. I’ve got the signed poster to prove it.

DSCN1126

I don’t remember all that much about his hastily arranged speech (Winnie Mandela was originally scheduled to speak, but she had to cancel). But I do recall (1) looking up the word “tabernacle” in the dictionary after the speech, to see if one could, as Mr. Clark did, use it as a verb (you can) and (2) a lot of students being less than pleased with him. There was a somewhat contentious back-and-forth with Mr. Clark and our student government president, who was quoted in the college newspaper after the speech as saying, “Clark reinforced an overwhelming perception of black stereotypes that are present in the media by not recognizing his audience as almost exclusively white. Blacks are dehumanized enough.” So, yeah, he wasn’t a big fan. Nor was my friend Kelly, who took photos for the paper at the event and seemed disgusted with me when I returned to the newspaper office with my signed poster, singing “Lean on Me.” We’ve worked through that. Or I think we have. Listen, don’t bring it up if you see her, just in case.

I’m not entirely certain that I’m fully behind Joe Clark’s educational philosophy, and he is a bit tough to take, but I am convinced that “Lean on Me” is a good movie, 25 years (and a few days) after I first saw it.

Where “Dream a Little Dream” takes the lull-you-to-sleep-with-nonsense approach to starting a movie, “Lean on Me,” directed by John G. Avildsen of “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” (and “Rocky V”) fame goes a different route. After a brief scene of the young Clark being removed from his teaching duties at Eastside High in 1967, we cut to Eastside 20 years later. And, oh my God, there is some crazy stuff going on (NSFW):

It was around this time that I was starting to think of where I wanted to go to high school, and this might have swayed me from even thinking about a public school. If there were gonna be fights, girls attacking girls and ripping their clothes off in the bathroom, students feeling up teachers, and teachers getting the living crap beaten out of them for trying to break up a fight, maybe I’d continue to take my chances with the Catholics. And so that’s how I ended up in an all-boys school.

Anyway, into this environment, on the recommendation of Bens, er, Superintendent Dr. Frank Napier (Guillaume) comes Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) to clean up Eastside. He is a man who believes his way is the only right way, who believes in weeding out the bad students, and who believes that knowing the school song is really, really important. (Those who do not sing the school song upon demand “will suffer dire consequences.”)

Clark gets the names of all the bad students from the teachers (and it should be noted that all the teachers do a pretty god job here, especially Michael Beach as Mr. Darnell and Michael P. Moran as Mr. O’Malley, and Beverly Todd–of At 25 favorite “Moving”–is strong as the vice principal who has to deal with Clark’s dictatorial ways) and has the bad eggs expurgated (his word, of course) at a school assembly. This earns the wrath of one of the student’s parents, Mrs. Barrett, played by the late Lynne Thigpen, later to become best known as the Chief on “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” (Please stop singing the theme song. I’m writing here.) She is appalled by what she sees as Clark’s bullying behavior and wants him gone. And so we have our added drama.

The meeting scene (at the end of which, like every other meeting in the movie, I have no idea if people are for or against Clark) gives way to my favorite scene in the movie, and one of my favorite movie scenes period. It features Sams (Jermaine Hopkins), one of the kids Clark threw out of school who now wants back in.

So great. And a good time to point out that, even though Freeman is fantastic (I wouldn’t have argued with a Best Actor nomination), Hopkins gets my vote for MVP of the movie (Karen Malina White, as Kaneesha, is also right up there among the students). He is so damn good. And this was his first movie! And probably his first acting job. Amazing.

So I Googled Jermaine Hopkins and discovered something. Well, two things. First, his nickname is Huggy. Second, he was arrested in 2011 for trying to buy 200 pounds of weed. Yes, 200 pounds. But he somehow avoided serious jail time because, as he is quoted in an Urban Daily article, “I got a great lawyer out in Arizona who had over twenty years experience dealing with Arizona’s judicial system. You have to remember Arizona borders Mexico. So to the rest of the country 200 pounds sounds like a lot, but in Arizona, they’re used to dealing with more than that. Plus, the police involved in my case wanted to protect their informant more so than put me in jail.”

Oh, Sams.

Of course, Sams is also part of another memorable “Lean on Me” scene and the reason why I break out into song (usually only in my head, but I can’t guarantee it’s like that all the time) whenever I see Eastside’s name in the Star-Ledger.

But enough about Sams (well, there’s never enough about Sams for me, but I’ll move on anyway). Back to the movie, in which Clark, aside from keeping out drug dealers, trying to keep Mrs. Barrett off his back, and generally building up Eastside pride, also has as his main goal getting the students to pass the New Jersey Minimum Basic Skills Test. Wait, did I write “Minimum”? Sorry. Check that.

DSCN1122Now, look, I love this movie, and almost everything about it. But, come on, no one notices that the test says “Minimun”? No one? And that test booklet is on the screen for a few seconds, so it’s noticeable even to people who aren’t jerkoff copy editors picking at every little misspelling 24 hours a day. You’re better than this, guys.

It’s a good thing Benson’s in this movie to make me forget about that disgrace. And Benson kicks ass. Honestly, I think people tend to overlook just how great Robert Guillaume is. And they shouldn’t. Behold two great actors at work (NSFW language within).

I’m guessing you’ve figured out how things wind up in the movie. After a rousing rendition of “Lean on Me,” the kids wind up passing the skills test, which somehow frees Mr. Clark from further punishment for breaking the fire code, for which he has been imprisoned in the movie (though as the fire chief says when arresting him–an arrest that never occurred in real life–it’s “basically for being an asshole”). I suppose some–maybe a lot of–liberties were taken with the truth, and, as this article points out, white people don’t really come off so great in the movie (but, let’s face it, we’re not really all that much to write home about). But, at the end of the day, who really cares about the veracity (that’s for you, Mr. Clark) of a movie that’s not a strict documentary? I think we’ve all come to the realization that movies “based on a true story” often tend to stretch the truth for dramatic purposes. And if you haven’t, consider this your notice.

In the end, “Lean on Me” is just a good movie, a good movie with great accomplished actors, fantastic young actors, and three different versions of the titular song (well, one is a loose interpretation by Big Daddy Kane). So, how can you complain about that? You’d have to be on crack.

And you know what that does to your brain cells.

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One thought on “At 25 Double Feature: “Dream a Little Dream”/”Lean on Me”

  1. […] and the always rock-steady Jason Robards (who gamely recovers from doing his level best to save “Dream A Little Dream”) to make it that much better. And then toss in Bob Elliott (from Bob and Ray) and Phil Hartman in […]

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