There’s a strange sort of feeling that comes over a person when they stumble across another’s love letters. Of course, there’s the inherent curiosity of seeing how someone else expresses their emotion. But there can also be a small amount of discomfort, especially when the individual invaded bares their soul so completely. This will probably be the reaction most moviegoers have to Michele Gondry’s magical masterwork Be Kind, Rewind. Those looking for a riotous comedy featuring a fully unleashed Jack Black should probably wait for the comedian’s next high concept project. In this French filmmaker’s personal paean to the ‘80s and home video, everything - including the performances - is in service of his passionate, very personal vision.
In a rundown section of Passaic, New Jersey, Mr. Fletcher owns a mom and pop video store. Specializing in video tapes, he soon realizes he may have to modernize - especially with the city threatening to condemn his building and put him out of business. Leaving his likable clerk Mike in charge, the desperate man heads off on a fact finding mission. He has only one mandate - keep the loose canon crazy man Jerry out of the shop. Seems the manic mechanic believes the electric company is scrambling his brains. After an aborted mission to sabotage the utility, Jerry is magnetized. When he enters the store, all of Fletcher’s inventory is erased. Hoping to stave off disaster - and the boss’s personal spy, the nosy Mrs. Falewicz - Mike gets Jerry and dry cleaner employee Alma to help him recreate all the movies lost. He will then use these “sweded” versions of the films to keep the enterprise afloat. Hopefully.
Be Kind, Rewind, is the sort of movie you have to step away from for a moment - especially in light of the creative conceit that appears to be driving the narrative. When you learn that the main thrust of the film will focus on the ‘recreation’ (or ‘sweding’, as the script calls it) of classic ‘80s films - Ghostbusters, Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy, etc. - you expect that material to be golden. And it really is, Gondry relying on his typical homemade special effects aesthetic to mine amazing satire out of the spoofs. But once you realize how these knockoffs are made - from memory, without screenplays or copies of the films to work from - you begin to see the director’s designs. There is indeed much more to this movie than a series of pointed parodies. At its core, Be Kind, Rewind is a brilliant dissection of the effect the video cassette has had on the concept of movie fandom and its lasting impact of cinema in general.
It all begins with the premise: two semi-slackers - one, a determined video store clerk with artistic ambitions; the other, a technologically tuned-in cynic who sees the mainstream as manipulative and evil. Together, they become an independent force for film, taking iconic motion pictures and processing them through their own pop culture blender. It’s like watching the onscreen birth of Quentin Tarantino and Ain’t It Cool News simultaneously. Even better, the resulting movies become so meaningful to the clientele, so part of who they are as an audience and a community, that they rally around the guys when trouble strikes - in this case, Sigourney Weaver in a wicked cameo as a copyright touting studio suit. Everything that home video did to the medium - the ready accessibility, the collector’s obsession, the direct connection, the self-righteous self importance - becomes part of the thematic landscape that Gondry explores. It’s like an analog trip in the way-back machine.
And he does so in a more straightforward, less surreal manner, than ever before. Working from his own script, the filmmaker finds the perfect balance between the odd and the ordinary, taking outside issues (Fats Waller, jazz rent parties, the history of Passaic) and juxtaposing them against Mike and Jerry’s adventures in moviemaking. Unlike previous films, where Gondry was forced to battle with elements of magical realism, the fairytale, and the downright bizarre, he gives himself the freedom to explore both the real and the unreal world, to wander through a specific universe peppered with as much imagination and invention as the slightly sci-fi realms he’s worked in before.
Gondry also has yet another amazing cast to help him. Mos Def’s Mike is the heart of Be Kind, Rewind. He provides the motivation to make us care, along with the vision to keep us involved. Taking point is Black as the brain addled Jerry. Walking a very thin line between endearing and aggravating, we buy most of what the character presents only because the film finds a way to keep his whimsy cheery and in check. Danny Glover and Mia Farrow add skilled, old school flavor as Fletcher and Falewicz, respectively, and former MTV fave Kid Creole does a delightful job as the manager of a local ‘Blockbuster’ style store. But the real discovery here is Melonie Diaz. While she’s worked consistently in smaller budgeted films, this is one of her first mainstream roles, and she’s great as the direct and dictatorial Alma. Without her guidance (and fiscal gifts), our heroes would be nothing but unheralded hacks.
But when it’s all put together, when Gondry’s subversive message about the way VHS revised our perception of film finally finishes, Be Kind, Rewind becomes a celebration of cinema as both a medium and a message. From the subtle references to other like minded films (the ending is so Cinema Paradiso that Giuseppe Turnatore should be flattered…or filing a lawsuit) to the original use of post-punk DIY spirit, this is an artist assembling his greatest hits in hopes it will resonate with an already jaded demographic. The biggest hurdle this fine film will have to face is a know-it-all audience that sees too much of themselves in Mike and Jerry. While Gondry definitely champions their wide-eyed wonder, the ending suggests that belief will have to succumb to business as usual. With ads selling the story as a nonstop collection of moronic remakes, there will definitely be some buyer’s remorse.
But unlike the bloated blockbusters from two decades ago, there’s a subtext to this movie beyond a single oversold gimmick. Be Kind, Rewind is as hilarious as it is heartfelt, a fully formed film, not a simple set-up for a collection of copies. And when you consider the history of videotape, how it turned a dying medium into a potent, and profitable, cultural signpost, the parallels here become all the more significant. Years from now, when scholars are ruminating on movies that accurately reflected the inherent issues within the artform, Gondry’s greatness will be revealed. Until that time, be brave and take a gander at this man’s outspoken adoration for the format that changed everything. Forget HD. Ignore DVD. The VCR was perhaps the most important filmic force since sound and color - and Be Kind, Rewind understands this all too well. That’s why it’s such a smart, sensational film.