[25 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The year is 2176. The United States has become a dreary, desolate wasteland. A freak magnetic storm has wiped out all history. A team of scientists is instructed to take a time machine back into the past, to 1776 specifically, to re-discover the principles upon which the once mighty nation was founded. So Adam-11, Chanel-6, and Heinz-57, three hapless temporal explorers make the leap. But a computer glitch lands them in 1976, not quite the year of the Declaration of Independence. A Fifth of Beethoven, yes. As luck would have it, Chris Johnson and Tommy Sears, two California potheads, discover these futuristic fish out of water.
Our bong buddies agree to help the discoverers with their mission to find the true America. But a know-it-all nerd named Rodney Snodgrass threatens to ruin everything by sticking his conspiracy theory, alien obsessive nose into the drug duo’s business. With only twelve hours to obtain pertinent artifacts and a copy of the Constitution, our intrepid trio experiences everything that this enigmatic epoch has to offer: gas lines, recreational pharmaceuticals, and “The Hustle.” But it will take a group effort to avoid Rodney, his seedy brother Eddie, and a couple of bumbling CIA agents if our confused crew is ever going to return to the future to spread The Spirit of ‘76.
From its surrounding show business lineage, one could imagine that The Spirit of ‘76 is either a raucous yet sophisticated comedy (thanks to daddy Carl) or a modern, polished piece of nostalgia from deep inside the Hollywood hit machine (thanks to brother Rob). But Lucas Reiner, he also of the famed last name, tracks his touching take on the Me Decade directly down the middle of both roads, offering broad lampoon style humor with tender tweaks at that most retro of eras to create a gentle, genial farce. This is a very well observed satire, from the little moments (mood rings, space food sticks) to the outrageous fashion trends (it’s a polyester-palooza) and philosophical ideals (the EST like “Be” seminars). While the targets may seem obvious today, in this post That ‘70s Show / Austin Powers flashback media mentality, when conceived in 1989, The Spirit of ‘76 was (and still is) a fresh, friendly look at a much maligned epoch in US cultural history.
This is not a subtle slice of life like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (the inherent truth of that film and its carefully constructed look at a certain people and place make it more documentary than fiction) or an attempt at an actual recreation. It’s just a silly dumb spoof with some nice things to say about freedom. With a wink and a nod to the public’s perception of the entire leisure suit circumstances, The Spirit of ‘76 functions as both a comedy and a comment, presenting the Have A Nice Day dreamscape of 1976 as an enlightened, if decidedly lame, time frame.
One of the reasons The Spirit of ‘76 stands out, aside from its potent visual sense, is its eccentric casting. At first, there is an obviousness to the stars playing the lead roles. After all, what movie exploiting pop culture fads would avoid using ex-teen idols like Leif Garrett (as the hilariously sleazy Eddie Trojan) and David Cassidy (as time traveler Adam-11)? But scattered throughout Spirit are particularly obtuse choices as well. Steve and Jeff MacDonald from the superb rock group Redd Kross (whose brand of electrified pop is highly influenced by the ‘70s) are absolutely hilarious as the valley boy stoners Chris and Tommy. The members of Devo show up as officials of the future government, and other icons of the era (Tommy Chong, Rob “Meathead” Reiner) are matched with unusual cult figures (Earth Girls Are Easy‘s Julie Brown, The Kipper Kids) to flavor the film with an offbeat bouquet. Even regular “actor” Olivia D’Abo and circus clown Geoff Hoyle fit right in.
But a platoon of peculiar players would be nothing without a capable director to guide them, and youngest son/brother Lucas shows that, when it comes to helming hilarious motion pictures, there is something special in those Reiner genes. With an incredibly small budget and no major studio support, Lucas manages to create alternative realities, both past and futuristic, without the benefit of special effects or elaborate props. The homemade, thrift store conceit adds a real authenticity to this film. Instead of looking like a bunch of current actors running around in studio-sewn fashions, the lived-in feel of the clothing and sets make The Spirit of ‘76 seem that much more genuine. Reiner is to be commended for finding a way to make the financial limitations work. While not an all-out laugh riot, The Spirit of ‘76 is a well-made, well-conceived comic tribute to flared trousers and puka beads.