PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'King of the Gypsies' Should Become a Cult Classic

Eric Robert's big screen debut provides a beautifully shot and scored dramatic take on gypsy life in America.


King of the Gypsies

Director: Frank Pierson
Cast: Eric Roberts, Sterling Hayden, Susan Sarandon, Judd Hirsch, Michael V. Gazzo, Annie Potts, Shelley Winters
Release date: 2015-07-14

The opening scene of King of the Gypsies (1978) shows a lone gypsy dancing an elaborate dance by a stream in the picturesque country landscape of New York state sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, and with this opening scene two of the film’s greatest virtues become evident: its visuals and its soundtrack.

Famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who is responsible for the photography in foreign arthouse classics like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975) as well as Hollywood pop-culture sensations like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993), gives King of the Gypsies a soothing natural look that is perfect for both its mythical subject and dramatic story. Its soundtrack, meanwhile, is scored by the innovative bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman, who seems to have shared duties with the legendary violinist Stéphane Grappelli in performing the film’s unforgettable tracks that are reminiscent of the type of French gypsy jazz most associate with Django Reinhardt.

This opening scene then transitions to a nearby camp where two rival gypsy clans are squabbling about a prearranged marriage. King Zharko Stephanowicz (Sterling Hayden), known as the ‘King of the Gypsies’, has came to this camp to collect the adolescent Rose (later played by Susan Sarandon) to wed his son Groffo (later played by Judd Hirsch). Although the leader of the resident gypsy clan, Spiro (Michael V. Gazzo), had previously agreed to sell his daughter Rose, which is a customary practice in this culture, he now refuses to hand her over to King Zharko because she hates the young Groffo. All hell breaks loose and the sequence ends with King Zharko and his clan stealing Rose and driving off while shooting a six-shooter out the window of their car.

The film then begins chronicling the early life of Frank (Eric Roberts), who is Rose and Groffo’s first born son. While Rose has become a successful gypsy woman who enlists her young son in a variety of scams, Groffo has turned out to be, just as she suspected as a child, a loser. He has no source of income and seems to spend all his time drinking booze and abusing his family. But Frank neither endures the abuse nor the haphazard gypsy life for long. He runs away and tries to join mainstream society as soon as King Zharko, who acts as his real father figure, starts talking to him about getting a wife.

Once free from the gypsy world, Frank falls in love and moves in with Sharon (Annette O’Toole). Sharon knows nothing of Frank’s family history until his mother, Rose, arrives with some news. The news is that Groffo has arranged for Frank’s younger sister, Tita (Brooke Shields as a child actor), to marry against her wishes. She then tells Frank that he can save his little sister from an unhappy marriage and life by visiting the dying King Zharko who wants to pass on the title, 'King of the Gypsies', to his favorite nephew, Frank, rather than his drunken son, Groffo. As 'King' Frank will have great power... but it's a power he doesn't want.

Annie Potts and Shelley Winters round out the incredibly talented cast, and together this ensemble of characters explore how the seeds of tradition, family, and culture, once planted inside a individual’s subconscious, often develop roots so deep that they are impossible to escape from. Even if you sever whatever these seeds produce on the surface, their roots never stop growing and it's only a matter of time before they again break through the soil of reality and make demands. King of the Gypsies is about a young man who must face these demands, even though it's the last thing he wants to do.

Frank Pierson, who both wrote and directed the film, based much of the background material surrounding its captivating story on Peter Maas’s 1975 work of creative nonfiction by the same name. And whether it's due to the fact that Maas reportedly relied almost entirely on police records to write his book or simply Hollywood sensationalism at work, the stereotype that gypsies are nothing more than thieving, scamming, fighting misfits unfortunately acts as the engine behind the film. But stereotypes aside, Pierson offers with King of the Gypsies an intimate, relatively realistic look at gypsy culture in the United States that many Americans have long been ignorant of.

For this reason alone it's a film worth watching. It should be remembered as a powerfully written, memorably scored, beautifully shot film that highlights Eric Roberts in a debut that I can only describe as a tour de force performance of overacting. The film, however, seems to be widely ignored by younger generations of film buffs who weren’t of age to see it upon its theatrical release or completely forgotten by those cinephiles who did see it on the big screen. Perhaps this oversight is because it was released at the end of the ‘70s, undoubtedly America’s greatest decade in filmmaking, and has been overshadowed by the many masterful juggernauts from that era. Or maybe it's because the film didn’t get a widescreen release on home video until Legend Films put out a DVD in 2008.

I haven't any idea why the movie-loving public has failed to acknowledge King of the Gypsies on any significant scale. I’m only certain of this one thing: the film, without question, deserves to be resurrected for the masses, reconsidered by those who forgot it, and discovered by those unfortunate enough to have not seen it. Lucky for us, Olive Films is doing its part in putting the spotlight back on King of the Gypsies with this new Blu-ray edition.

While the high definition resolution makes for a great introductory viewing experience, I would have liked to have seen some special features included with the release. A commentary track with Eric Roberts would have been fascinating — not only because it was his big-screen debut, but also because in the decades that followed his career profile shifted from that of a rising star to one of the more respected character actors, and I’d love to hear what he has to say about this explosive launch into Hollywood he had playing Frank.

I would have also liked to have seen some sort of extended cut, or even the inclusion of a few deleted scenes, because one of the major downsides of the film is its fragmented, almost television-movie-esque feel. The story’s progression of time is often rushed, and Dave’s voice-over narration doesn’t always reflect what is on screen. Although I don't have a shred of evidence, I suspect that studio-pressure resulted in a case of over editing.

Who am I kidding with these complaints? I should just be grateful this film, which came close to drifting into the forgotten abyss of film history, has received a Blu-ray release. It definitely has its flaws, but it also tells a fascinating story with an excellent cast accompanied by some truly beautiful visuals and music. Is King of the Gypsies a cult classic in the making? I think so.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.