Country Peaches/Neon Highway (USA, 1983)

May 3, 2012

Can you arrive both too late too early to the party? It’s a question to ponder as we handle a pristine Japanese Laserdisc of this forgotten, and only, feature directorial effort from popular author/showrunner Julia March. The Japanese release amusingly splits the difference between the two titles that tried, and failed, to sell this picture, going with Peach Road Dreamland.

The film’s peculiarity lies in that as much as it trades in the gratuitous nudity and car chases, it owes as much if not more to the New American Cinema of Altman and Ashby. And yet it’s no nostalgia piece. After the chaotic first act where a pair of comely would be car thieves, Ruby (Dana Michaels) and Evelynne (Tanya Kendricks) incur the wrath of Sheriff Salter (Peter Fonda), it plays like the seventies drive off to meet the eighties. The pair pick up New Waver Dice (Emily Bridges), in place of a guitar picker looking to make it in Nashville, Dice totes a cherry red keytar. The two agree to take her to Phoenix to play in a show with her sometime boyfriend and hopefully impress a musical impresario (also played by Fonda) who’ll be in the crowd.

The introduction of Dice and her story almost feels like a first draft of the gentle teen flicks of John Hughes. And the two stories don’t always mesh comfortably. Some care is taken with the characterization of the former two, Ruby’s boyfriend was a Nam vet who finally finished drinking him to death. Evelynne lost her younger brother in an attack based on the notorious Atlanta Child Murders of two years earlier. There is real pain in the two, and sense in their reckless behavior they’re rushing towards oblivion with open arms.

The latter half of the film divided the few critics who payed attention at the time. Some thought the director was making a canny critique of Reaganism good feelings over substance, as the older girls forget their troubles to help Dice make it as a music star. Others thought it a cop out. A few stuck up for the picture, saying the key lies in the songs Dice sings in fragments throughout the picture. Mostly old, melancholy spirituals taught to her by her grandmother. They argued it was a Pepsi Generation variation on Night of the Hunter with three lost children escaping a demonic older man. It’s a hard film to pin down and that is part of its charm or frustration depending on the viewer’s mood.

The soundtrack has become a collector’s item, with just bootlegs fetching premium prices on collector’s sites. Banjo twangs, synth, spirituals, and punk guitar riffs are as good as any summation of the film’s shifting moods and tones. Composed by Alice Tanner, she would write some of the biggest hits, including “Laser Heart”, for popular late eighties group Sound Dreams. She returned to film scoring in the late nineties with considerable success, picking up an Academy Award nomination for her work on Todd Creshlin’s Another Time Another Place.

The director/screenwriter Julia March shifted her focus to writing and steady work as a TV director. She wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning Too Many Stones, and created the early aughts cult TV favorite, Blood and Wine. This reunited her with Kendricks, now playing the family’s delightfully sour matriarch.

Kendricks needs no introduction here as she earned the adoration of eighties audiences as Petal Montgomery in the iconic prime time soap Forbidden Law, and earned geek hearts in the nineties as Capt. Athena “Nea” King in Star Force. Michaels worked little after this and eventually returned to New York to teach drama and run a successful casting agency. Bridges was a breakout star of the decade, drug troubles nearly ended her career in the mid-nineties but she returned with a hit TV series, Dr. Magic, and went on to produce several more.

As you might guess from the copy source, the film was something of a hit in Japan. Inspiring a pop group and a long running manga both called Neon Peaches. The manga actually bearing very little resemblance to the finished film. Telling the story of three girls who are each given a magic peach pit from The Goddess of Nature and sent out on a quest to defeat the evil Poison King-Priest who rules over a post apocalyptic America. It’s a shame the film couldn’t find an audience here but perhaps it’s fitting if we remember the lyrics to one of Dice’s songs. “Our homes are the most empty places of all, only the road’s ever moving arms can hold us…”

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