This is indubitably one of the most obvious choices for a Criterion pick-up thus far. Rhythm Thief is a Sundance winning film by Matthew Harrison (dir. Kicked In The Head, Spare Me, My Little Hollywood). The film is one of the many gems discovered in the 1990’s and helped launch the careers of both the filmmaker and his actors. A study of the NYC underground filmmaking community, Harrison’s 1994 gritty masterpiece is overdue for a serious and well thought out reissue. Here is my reasoning for why Rhythm Thief deserves the Criterion Treatment (or an equally thoughtful release).
*Possible Spoilers* below for anyone who hasn’t seen this movie.
What stemmed as a two page idea morphed into this feature length work that clearly demonstrates Matthew Harrison’s excellent film making abilities. He shot the film in July 1993 with Producer Jonathan Starch for a meager $11,000 in only eleven days. Although a micro-budget film, Harrison insists that the film’s budget was enormous for the day and that he was able to make the film exactly like he wanted. “It doesn’t get better than this” he recalls in a recent interview. The film is not Harrison’s first feature, but his breakthrough work, not just for him but for his actors as well. The film stars Jason Andrews, Kevin Corrigan, Eddie Daniels and Kimberly Flynn to name a few. Of course the biggest star is the film’s New York City backdrop, specifically Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Locals are familiar with the lively Delancey Street area and will immediately recognize the scenery, and if you’re like me, you’ll get a kick out of the out of time feel of the movie.
The story revolves around a music bootlegger played by Jason Andrews, who sells illegally copied music on cassette tapes on a street corner in New York. The story takes a gritty sharp turn when a militant punk band discovers that their recordings are among the bootlegger’s inventory. They respond hard and violent, forcing Andrews’ character to flee from the city. Ken Eisner wrote in his review for Variety: “No-budget New York item gets stronger as it moves confidently forward, weaving together the lives of some very desperate Lower East Siders before reaching a quietly devastating close.” Strand Releasing released Rhythm Thief on select screens in the U.S. and the movie also had a successful run at Film Forum in New York.
The Current Issue
Kino carries Rhythm Thief on DVD, which has some good features, however, the edition isn’t quite at the par the film truly deserves. In preparation for this column, I acquired and scoured the current DVD edition of Rhythm Thief and my consensus is this: a film of this caliber deserves better. Although filmmaker Matthew Harrision insists he’s more than happy with the Kino edition of the film, he does feel that out of all of his work, Rhythm Thief is the most likely title to warrant a Criterion spine.
“I’m proud to be in the catalog next to THE LITTLE FUGITIVE,” Harrison responded to my call for comment, “that movie IS the story of my childhood. That really is me and my little brother.“
Harrison went on to say that he’d welcome an offer from Criterion, saying:
“One thing I like a lot about Criterion is their very high level of design in their presentations. The DVD’s are beautiful, they care a lot about how the films are presented and as a filmmaker, I feel like Criterion really understands FILM and the look and feeling of how they FILMICLY present the work, adding a beautiful context to enjoying the cinema as cinema. It is very specifically a film lovers place.“
Harrison says he had considered reaching out to them initially, but he felt shy as so many directors push really hard to force Criterion to take their films, even if their films should not be in the Criterion catalog. Harrison insists that he did not want to come across as a prestige hunting director and that such behavior makes him “sick to (his) stomach“. That’s okay Matt, I’ll vouch for Rhythm Thief for you!
In the humble opinion of this columnist, Rhythm Thief is a downtown classic. The movie was shot on 16mm black and white film stock at 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a mono mix. While I haven’t talked tech much with this column, this is an area I will delve into mainly with the ultra indie films I suggest. In the case of Rhythm Thief, it would be beneficial for the preservation of the work to have the negative re-scanned in 4k resolution along with a new surround or at the very least, stereo audio mix (with the original monaural track being an option on the disc). Such a high resolution master would allow for not only a kick ass DVD, but one hell of a Bluray.
Harrison has already noted that he’d like to redo some of the optical work on the film and has gone as far as to preserve all the stems necessary to make this possible. This is a film I truly believe deserves all the bells and whistles that a film can receive when being released to a special edition DVD and so it’s important that, if a special edition does happen, the distributor that picks it up needs to be willing to finance the ultimate version of the film. All the elements are there, it’s just a matter of time before someone, somewhere, discovers this valuable work.
Some interesting features I’d like to see on a Criterion quality release of Rhythm Thief would include a commentary by the filmmaker and his actors. He already has one on the Kino release and it would be worth including that original commentary, along with an additional one featuring his talent. A retrospect of the film and the era of ’90’s indie film-making would be an obvious choice for a supplemental feature. Awards and biography breakdowns, festival track record, reviews are all important with a film like this.
The film sparked controversy when it won the Special Jury Recognition for Directing at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival when juror Samuel L. Jackson announced the winner of the Jury Prize. The judges at Sundance were split over which film should walk off with the prize. The story goes that Jackson wanted one movie (Rhythm Thief); the others leaned toward another (McMullen), and when he announced Brothers McMullen, he wasn’t very enthusiastic. It would be great to get some retrospective comments from Jackson and the other jurors on what went down at Sundance in 1995.
Anyone interested in seeing the film now can rent it through YouTube or pickup the Kino edition at the official Kino website or Amazon.com. There are also plenty of new and used dvd’s of the film available.