Before embarking on his brief run as a top-notch director of Hollywood action movies, a streak that culminated with The Fugitive (1993), Chicago filmmaker Andrew Davis made his feature debut with this low-budget drama about the formation and travails of a fictional R&B band from the Chicago enclave Stony Island. While Stony Island is a sloppy piece of work because the story is dull and meandering, the musical sequences drag on endlessly, and the narrative lacks a clearly defined central character, the film does offer ample texture. Davis shoots Chicago beautifully, whether he’s using wide lenses to capture painterly panoramas of urban decay or using telephoto lenses to create magical backgrounds filled with twinkling out-of-focus lights. Alas, much of the visual style Davis employs for Stony Island seems more suitable to the action movies he later directed (think dark and gritty), so many scenes in Stony Island feel oppressively heavy. It’s as if the he-man filmmaker inside Davis was fighting to break free, even though the mandate for Stony Island should have been to craft a loose, upbeat story about a musical family taking shape. Interestingly, Stony Island features early appearances by a number of people who later achieved notoriety. Sultry ’80s starlet Rae Dawn Chong plays a backup singer; feature/TV stalwart Dennis Franz gives a funny turn as an amiably sleazy crook; and Susanna Hoffs, subsequently the lead singer of the beloved LA girl band the Bangles, plays the female lead. (A teenager when she shot her non-singing role in Stony Island, Hoffs is the daughter of the picture’s co-producer/co-writer, Tamar Hoffs) Yet the actual star of Stony Island is one Richard Davis, a pleasant-seeming type who disappears into the background whenever any other actor is onscreen with him; although he ostensibly plays the visionary who puts the Stony Island Band together, Davis doesn’t command attention anywhere near as well as Gene Barge, who plays the group’s saxophonist and de facto impresario. Nonetheless, the lack of a dynamic primary figure becomes somewhat irrelevant during the movie’s many performance scenes, which showcase the interplay between musicians and singers as they lay down funky jams. Taken as a period piece infused with emerging talent, local color, and tasty tunes, Stony Island is intermittently edifying. Taken as a proper movie, Stony Island is a groove in search of a melody.
Stony Island: FUNKY