The untold story of a box-office bomb that became a cult classic

L-r) “Eddie and the Cruisers”: Joe Pantoliano, David Wilson, Michael Pare, Helen Schneider, Matthew Laurance, Tom Berenger, Michael Atunes (1983). CREDIT: Embassy Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection.)

Eight Degrees of “Eddie and the Cruisers”: What you need to know about the seemingly ignored 1983 film about fictitious rock god Eddie Wilson.

What: The film stars Michael Paré, Tom Berenger, Ellen Barkin and Joe Pantoliano. It’s the 1980s, and Eddie and the Cruisers are back on the charts, two decades after the singer’s tragic car crash. But is Eddie dead? And what about the secret tapes? A scrappy, feather-haired TV reporter played by Barkin works the story. Cut to New Jersey shore, 1962, Paré in sleeveless T-shirt as rock hero Eddie Wilson.

The film bombed at the box office, grossing less than $5 million during a short run in 1983. But “Eddie” got a second life during the summer of 1984 on HBO. That sparked the soundtrack, recorded by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, to become an unadulterated smash, rising into the Top 10. It also created a cult following for the film.

“One of the greatest movies ever,” says Brad Furman, director of “The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Runner Runner.” “It changed my life as a kid.”

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Where:”Eddie and the Cruisers” can be seen on streaming services or on DVD. A new Blu-ray edition featuring “Eddie” and the much-maligned 1989 sequel, “Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!” arrived in April. Author P.F. Kluge’s novel is also available, a book that Eddie enthusiast Kirk Curnutt, an English professor at Troy University in Alabama, still believes is superior. “The original novel,” he says, “had this great whodunit element that really propels the plot. It’s really a fun murder mystery.”

Berenger says that despite its box office failure, the film’s script was “superb,” and he loves it when “Eddie” pops up on cable. “It was haunting and it was about two things,” he says. “New Jersey and music and rock-and-roll and bands and that life. Very haunting and super nostalgic.”

– “Eddie” started the cable revolution

The film release was bungled. Instead of coming out as originally scheduled during the summer of ’83, “Eddie” got a late September release — when kids were back in school. Three weeks later, the studio pulled “Eddie.” It wasn’t until 1984 that “Eddie” found success in heavy rotation on HBO and home video. Videocassette recorders, in just 1 percent of American homes in 1980, were in 20 percent by 1985. “The VCR turned movies into songs, into hit songs,” says author Sherman Alexie, a huge fan of the book and film. “And ‘Eddie and the Cruisers,’ which was about music anyway, really became some version of a really great song.”

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“It came onto HBO, and I remember hearing immediately about sales of the album,” says Matthew Laurance, who played band member Sal Amato. “I’ve now had these amazing experiences of people talking about that movie even now. I had a line when I say, ‘We’re not great, we’re just some guys from New Jersey.’ I’ll be walking down Fifth Avenue and someone will yell at me, ‘Sal, I’m from New Jersey.’ “

– Rick Springfield and the Cruisers?

Early on, director Martin Davidson had been struggling to raise money to adapt Kluge’s book. Then Joe Brooks, who wrote the Debby Boone smash hit “You Light Up My Life,” offered a quarter of a million dollars to help produce it. But Brooks wanted Rick Springfield, the heartthrob hot on the heels of “Jesse’s Girl.” “Rick came over one day,” says Davidson, “and he was very nice. But all Joe cared about was selling the album. I said, ‘Joe, I don’t want the Rick Springfield story. It should be an unknown.’ People want to believe it really existed. It can’t be Rick Springfield and the Cruisers.” Enter Kenny Vance, formerly of Jay and the Americans and the music supervisor for “American Hot Wax” and “Animal House.” Vance read a copy of the script. “I’m remembering this group I had seen about a year before in Greenwich Village,” Vance says. “I wind up finding these guys and go up to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where they’re were about a day away from getting day jobs. They’re sort of staring at me, ‘Oh, another bull—- story. I say, ‘No, this is for real.’ “

– Tough love = rock god

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Michael Paré was just a kid in his early 20s. He was working as a chef in New York. Rehearsals were tough. Davidson, the director, didn’t coddle him. “If you f— up tomorrow, you’re fired,” Paré remembers being told early on. “Marty and I were not friends. He was really worried because, you know, if Eddie Wilson didn’t work, he didn’t have a movie.” At one point, the Cruisers got word that Paré’s spot was in jeopardy. They held a movie-band meeting and sent David Wilson, playing drummer Kenny Hopkins, to talk to Davidson. “I said, ‘Marty, you bag him, we’re all going,’ ” Wilson remembers.

Davidson admits he pushed his star. “I put him through hell,” he says. “To get him to where he had to be, I’ve never had to work quite as tough.” In one scene, Eddie takes the stage after a friend has died. “He has to break down. We had 500 extras standing around, and Michael was having a hard time finding it. I used the situation to bring him to tears. I battered him to the point I’ve never battered an actor in my life. To the point it was almost too unkind. But when it was over, we hugged, and I knew I had a scene which would work in the movie.”

– Stars are born

Barkin, a late bloomer nearing 30, played the hard-smoking reporter. Berenger, choking back tears off-set after his real-life marriage fell apart, served as the tightly wound Frank Ridgeway, the “wordman.” He would soon star in “Platoon” and “Major League.” Pantoliano played crooked manager Doc Robbins. And editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly would go on to a slate of popular films, including “Pretty Woman,” “American Pie” and “The Proposal.” But Paré never became a star. He had decent roles in “Streets of Fire” and “The Philadelphia Experiment” in 1984, but by 1989, he admits, his desperation to get back into film led to his agreeing to star in the ill-conceived “Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!” In that film, which Davidson, Barkin and Berenger stayed away from, Eddie is living in Canada as a construction worker named Joe West. The film is notable for saddling Paré with a disturbingly unhip moustache. “All of a sudden,” groans Vance, “Eddie lives, and he’s Robert Goulet.”

– Beatles on the cutting room floor?

As Berenger remembers it, a scene filmed in a roadhouse features the Cruisers watching TV as the Fab Four lands in the United States. “Kenny and Sal are making fun of it, making fun of his English bull—-, rock ‘n’ roll. I’m looking at it. I don’t know what to think of it. Then I’m looking at Eddie and he’s not laughing. He’s taking it seriously.”

Kluge, the book’s author, loves the idea of the scene.

“I was at this very college I”m teaching at now when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan,” he says. I would have applauded that scene. It would have been daring and edgy.”

There is only one problem, Davidson says. That scene never happened.

“There is no such thing,” he says. “It wasn’t in the screenplay, it wasn’t in my imagination. Tom is out of his f—ing mind.”

– Eddie III? A final chapter?

The 1989 sequel annoyed everyone involved in the original. “I wanted no part of that movie from the very beginning,” says Davidson. Paré thought playing Eddie Wilson again could spark his own comeback. “My agent said ‘Eddie II’ was my way back to studio movies,” Paré says. Most of the cast stayed away, with only Laurance’s Sal returning. “Eddie II” also bombed. But Paré, now 56 and acting regularly, has worked up a script for “Eddie III” with a friend. “I’ve got up to Page 78,” he says. “Of course, it’s about where has Eddie been since ‘Eddie and the Cruisers II.’ Berenger isn’t sure he’d consider a return. Wilson and Laurance say they’ve got no reservations. “If he wanted to do another one, I would be there in a second,” says Laurance, now a sports talk host on ESPN radio in Lexington, Kentucky. Furman wouldn’t rule the idea out of directing. “I am crazy enough that I probably would,” he says. “It would have to be an incredible script. But, you know, what was always inspiring to me was the whole through line of Rimbaud and the poet and the fake suicide, that was the only way to sort of have artistic freedom. I always thought that stuff was brilliant.”

– How a box-office bomb sells 3 million albums

Kluge set his book in the doo-wop era, but Davidson imagined melding Dion, Jim Morrison and Bruce Springsteen. He talked to George Thorogood and the J. Geils Band before finding Kenny Vance, who then found Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Davidson argued with Cafferty over two songs, “Tender Years” and “Wild Summer Nights,” which the band had already released as a 45. “I said to John, ‘Without these two songs, you can go home.’ He said, ‘No, these are my songs. These are John Cafferty music, not Eddie Wilson music.’ ” Cafferty eventually relented. Nobody wanted to put out the soundtrack at first, says Vance. Then, in 1984, the HBO run sparked excitement over the movie. Vance began to get calls. The album was selling 10,000, 15,000, 25,000 copies a week and would eventually be certified as triple platinum, selling more than 3 million copies. The backlash followed. “They called him the Kmart Springsteen,” Vance complains about the impact on Cafferty. “It was just so unfair.”

– Tender years

“I watched it maybe a year and a half ago,” Berenger says. “It made me remember when I got the script and thought, ‘This is superb.’ “

Kluge, who took issue at the time with some of the plot decisions, has come to appreciate “Eddie,” even calling it a “rock ‘n’ roll ‘Citizen Kane.’ ” So many lines from his book were taken verbatim. “My favorite scene is where Ellen Barkin is talking to Tom Berenger, trying to do the reporter thing, and he says, ‘I knew him a long time. And you and I just met.'”

Nedd-Friendly, the editor, recently watched “Eddie” again and was reminded of Paré’s performance. “Spot-on perfect,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it was not him singing.”

Paré talks about “On the Dark Side” and his performance with Helen Schneider, who played his girlfriend, Joann Carlino.

“You know, ’50 Shades of Grey’ didn’t come out for 30 years,” he says. “‘On the Dark Side’ was a very dirty, sexy song to me. The girl makes me feel like I should own her, like she should be mine. And if you see me onstage with her, it’s not like Sonny and Cher.”

Does he still think about making “Eddie”?

“I remember every day,” he says.