By Thomas M. Puhr.
Not unlike the rough cut of a certain sci-fi epic, 5-25-77 exhibits a scrappy charm. Still, I’d leave this one to superfans and nostalgia junkies only.”
“Most of this is true. The rest is even truer,” the opening text to Patrick Read Johnson’s 5-25-77 (2022) declares. The central plot point of this autobiographical coming-of-age story – he was the first non-professional to see a rough cut of the original Star Wars – is indeed unbelievable, the type of thing most sci-fi geeks can only dream of. But any reader who cringed at the above quote may have difficulty digesting this earnest but saccharine passion project.
After having his 8-year-old mind blown by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Johnson takes to making super-8 films in the backyard of his home in Wadsworth Illinois. His stunts include building alien spaceships from hubcaps, making a “zebra” by painting black-and-white stripes on a horse, and dyeing the family pool blood red for his unofficial sequel to Jaws (as an aspiring filmmaker in the mid-’70s, he of course worships Steven Spielberg). His ultimate dream, though, is to meet special effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, which prompts the teenaged Johnson (John Francis Daley) to fly to L.A. with little more than vague plans to “get advice.”
As the jaded Virgil to Johnson’s starry-eyed Dante, American Cinematographer editor Herb Lightman (Austin Pendleton) has some harsh words for our protagonist: “Hollywood is the least conducive place on the planet Earth for anyone’s dream to ever come true.” But despite himself, he takes a shine to the kid and gives him a tour of the Fox Studio Lot. The trip doesn’t go as planned. Johnson meets Spielberg on the set of Close Encounters of the Third Kind but spaces out when the alarmingly baby-faced director (Lightman jokes that he’s 11 years old) discusses the less-flashy minutiae behind his job. He quite literally bumps into Trumbull but freezes, unable to manage even a simple “hello.” But then something magical happens. John Dykstra gives him a tour of ILM and, seemingly on a lark, lets him watch A New Hope months before the general public knew anything of Luke Skywalker or the Death Star. He returns to Wadsworth a changed man, certain he has seen a movie that will alter cinema forever. “It’s gonna be like Woodstock,” he tells an indifferent friend.
This Hollywood sojourn is the film’s best sequence, capturing a place of both wonder and intimidation for Johnson, who begins to question whether he has what it takes to make it as an artist. The intervening scenes in his hometown, however, ring false; strange, given that it’s all based on a truer than true story. Part of the issue is the undercooked secondary characters: best friend Bill (Steve Coulter), sassy Robin (Katie Jeep), and first serious girlfriend Linda (Emmi Chen) all serve little purpose beyond criticizing or encouraging the protagonist. And Johnson’s self-portrayal lacks much nuance; he wants to get out of his small town, has big dreams, gazes up at the moon, etc. Sporting a truly horrendous wig, Daley struggles to deliver dialogue both maudlin (“I just want to belong!”) and eyeroll inducing (“Never fuck with a Kubrick fan”).
There’s something fairly self-aggrandizing about the whole thing. When Johnson takes the plunge and drives out to Hollywood for good, we get no fewer than three separate instances in which characters look on knowingly – but not without a twinge of sadness – as he leaves them behind. The director reiterates time and again how he was apparently the only one in his town to “get” the ending to 2001. It’s tough being the one person in your high school with half a brain, these patronizing scenes suggest. The problem isn’t that we don’t like the character but that the filmmaker so desperately wants us to. By the time he pontificates on the deeper meaning behind 2001’s monolith for the second or third time, I’d had about enough of him.
The new Blu-ray for 5-25-77 sheds some light on the film’s long, troubled path to completion. Shot mostly in 2004 (so no, it’s not a 37-year-old Daley under that wig) and bouncing around the festival circuit ever since (one special feature is a Q&A with the director at the 2013 Fantasia Film Festival), it has finally received a proper release – thanks, perhaps, to the resurgence of Star Wars super fandom. The Fantasia interview offers other insights. Johnson initially hired Haley Joel Osmont to play his younger self and had to replace him at the last minute (he met Daley in person the night before shooting started and was unable to complete any rehearsals; the lack of preparation shows).
Such supplemental features – Johnson also provides an audio commentary packed with factoids – reveal the filmmaker’s commitment to finishing the project. It’s a patchworked mess: overlong (nearly 135 minutes), post-productioned to death (footage and sound were added as late as 2020), and sporting some horrendous CGI (its practical effects – including models of Wadsworth circa 1975 – are quite beautiful, on the other hand). Not unlike the rough cut of a certain sci-fi epic, 5-25-77 exhibits a scrappy charm. Still, I’d leave this one to superfans and nostalgia junkies only.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.