Viewer Guide: Risky Business and The Music Never Stopped

January 15, 2021 | Richard Peña


Risky Business (1983)

Tonight’s classic—and a great personal favorite—is Risky Business, made in 1983, and written and directed by Paul Brickman.

A 19-year-old Tom Cruise incarnates Joel Goodsen, a high school senior in suburban Chicago dreaming of his future. Joel’s parents head out of town for a week, trusting their young son to be responsible and take care of the house in their absence. Caught up in the frenzy of the college application process, Joel is facing his college boards and accumulating those oh-so-important extracurricular activities for his resume. For Joel, what happens over the next few weeks will figuratively determine the course of the rest of his life.

When Joel’s more free-wheeling friend decides that what might settles Joel down would be a night with a call girl, a series of events is set in motion that will figuratively rock Joel’s world, challenging his ideas about  responsibility, his future, but especially about himself.

The Risky Business casting process had been going on for over a year, but the filmmakers were not able to settle on a Joel. Tom Cruise had been recommended to them, but casting directors were not convinced. Cruise was on location in Tulsa, Oklahoma filming Francis Ford Coppolla’s The Outsiders; in preparation for his role in that film, Cruise had bulked up, put on some temporary tattoos which were still visible and his hair was longer and “greasy-looking.”

In short, he appeared to be about as far away from the filmmakers’ concept of the innocent, preppy, North shore Chicago suburban high schooler as a young actor could be. Nevertheless, Cruise was called to Los Angeles for a screen test with Rebecca DeMornay. The chemistry between the two actors was immediately evident, and soon both were cast as the film’s leads.

Paul Brickman would later describe the process of writing Risky Business. He had gone to a cabin to write the script, a sort of “Hollywood dream” of the screenwriting process. According to Brickman, “The first week is great! You have all the ideas you’ve saved up, and they come pouring out onto the page. The second week…  well, the second week, you begin to ask yourself if there’s any purpose to your work. The third week, you ask yourself if there’s any purpose to your life! It’s then you have to come back to civilization – and get yourself a good producer.

Brickman had written screenplays before—notably Jonathan Demme’s wonderful Handle With Care—but Risky Business would be his directorial debut. After several unsatisfying experiences working with directors who did not share his vision for his work, Brickman was eager to exercise some creative control in the filmmaking process. He had already worked extensively in still photography before directing, which gave him valuable experience that came through in creating the very specific style of framing the action he uses throughout the film.

Brickman was determined to comment on the very materialistic narrative of the Reagan-era 80s. For Brickman, The Graduate would be a major influence. But whereas The Graduate’s concept of “plastics” was hilarious to Brickman in its absurdity, by the 1980s, the comment had become an anthem, as high school students were envisioning getting an MBA before they’d even been accepted to college, all in the worship of materialism and money. By the 1980s, the pursuit of money had become a foregone conclusion. In the wake of 80s teen films like Porky’s and its sequels, and in the guise of another entry in the genre, Brickman here made the Citizen Kane of teen movies, resulting in a dark, very non-traditional tale, a teen movie not limited to a teenage audience. In Risky Business, making money becomes the guilt-free alternative to the uncontrolled lust that drives most teen movies.

Risky Business’s score and song list contribute in no small way to the film’s impact. Writer/director Paul Brickman enlisted Tangerine Dream, a leading 1980s group that he felt could embody the film’s tone, to create the score. The band’s first submission was a profound disappointment to Brickman; the pieces they created sounded more like a teen movie score than any teen movie he’d seen. The director immediately boarded a plane to Berlin, explaining his process to the musicians and spending countless sleepless nights re-creating the score from scratch. The resulting score not only defines the film, but was copied throughout numerous films and tv series during the 1980s and beyond.

Speaking of the film’s music, arguably it’s most iconic scene takes teen music to its limit. Scolded by his father earlier for adjusting his stereo’s precious equalizer, Joel celebrates his parents’ absence by immediately blasting the bass, raising the volume, and dancing with wild abandon to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”

How did Brickman and Cruise arrive at the now-famous scene? Cruise cites the script – everything was there on the page, said the actor. Brickman attributed it to Cruise’s ability to just “go crazy” – the two met for a full day on the set when the rest of the crew was off, throwing every idea on the table, taking every move to its logical extreme. The result became a culturally iconic moment. But how, you ask, was Cruise able to sail into the room and stop perfectly within the frame? He waxed the floor. When the wax stopped, so did he.

According to Rebecca DeMornay, she learned an important lesson making Risky Business. “In order for real art to be made, all of the key people involved have to be dreaming the same dream. This was the case making Risky Business.” 


The Music Never Stopped (2011)

This week’s indie is The Music Never Stopped, a 2011 music drama directed by Jim Kohlberg.

Loosely based on Oliver Sack’s essay “The Last Hippie” and borrowing its title from a Grateful Dead song, The Music Never Stopped is set in 1986, and stars J.K. Simmons as Henry Sawyer, an engineer living a quiet but depressed life in suburban New York with his wife Helen, played by Cara Seymour.  Henry dreads the prospect of his impending retirement because it’s still tough for him to live with a painful emptiness at the center of his life: the disappearance of his estranged son Gabriel, an aspiring rock & roll musician played by Lou Taylor Pucci, who stormed out of the house after a bitter argument with his father at the peak of the anti-Vietnam War movement in 1968.  With no knowledge of Gabriel’s whereabouts for 18 years, Henry eases his regrets by taking refuge in his favorite music, an artistic interest he had instilled in Gabriel as a boy before the Sixties generational conflict drove a wedge between father and son.  But when Gabriel resurfaces at a hospital, Henry and Helen’s relief is short-lived upon learning that Gabriel is suffering from a massive brain tumor.  While the tumor is benign and treatable, Gabriel’s brain damage has transformed him into a psychological Rip Van Winkle, with his life’s memories ending in 1968.  But when Gabriel unexpectedly responds to music fragments during sessions with his therapist played by Julia Ormond, Henry begins to realize there may still be a path back to repair their relationship through the mutual passion they both still share.

Marking the directorial debut of producer Jim Kohlberg, The Music Never Stopped had languished in development hell for thirteen years before getting its production greenlit after critical music rights for songs by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, so central to the film’s narrative, were finally granted.  Receiving the blessing from these two music industry giants was both a boon to the low-budget indie’s bottom line as well as a seal of approval, with rights for The Beatles’ songs and other rock & roll heavy hitters soon following.  Initially called “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Kohlberg changed the title to the Dead’s song “The Music Never Stopped” as being more appropriate to the story, as well as to prevent audiences from assuming the movie was a Dylan biopic.  The film also provided a richly deserved career break for veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, who would triumphantly garner a Best Supporting Actor Oscar three years later for his blistering performance in Whiplash.

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