Director Andrew Davis made his name in Hollywood with tough, low-budget action films like Code Of Silence and Above The Law, which gave him the license to tackle blockbusters like The Fugitive. But pre-’80s, Davis worked as a cameraman for Haskell Wexler on Medium Cool, and served as cinematographer on some lesser-known blaxploitation films like Hit Man and The Slams. And in 1978 he made his feature directorial debut with Stony Island, an offbeat indie film about a couple of guys trying to make it in an R&B band in Chicago. Co-written and co-produced with Tamar Hoffs (soon to be a director herself, and the mother of Bangles frontwoman Susanna Hoffs, who appears in the film), Stony Island is a shaggy slice of life, as much about the culture of Chicago in the late ’70s as it is about a two musicians chasing a dream. It’s that emphasis on setting over plot that makes Stony Island such a pleasure to watch, decades after it kicked around the paltry film-festival and arthouse circuits of its time.
Andrew Davis’ kid brother Richie stars alongside Edward Robinson as the aspiring soul stars—the former white, the latter black—and Stony Island is filled with actual local musicians, who provide a jazzy, funky, frequently lovely soundtrack. In addition to the Davises and the Hoffs, the movie features a few other well-known names both in front of and behind the camera. Tak Fujimoto is the cinematographer (with Mark Romanek as one of his cameramen), while jazz legends David Sanborn and Hiram Bullock worked on the score, and Dennis Franz, Meshach Taylor, and Rae Dawn Chong pop up in small roles. But the real star of Stony Island is the city of Chicago, which Davis and company capture from its expensive high-rise apartments to its slushy puddles under the El. The movie is very concerned with how and where a band rehearses—this particular group gathers in a parking garage above a funeral home—as well as with the day jobs its members have to take to pay the bills, and how they handle it when an older bandmate suddenly dies. But all of this is set against the backdrop of city reeling from the recent death of its powerful mayor, which means that politics and payoffs inform even the choices that a bunch of musicians make. Stony Island is a distillation of the work Davis had done up to that point—half urban grit, half cinema verité—and a fair indicator of the kind of small, personal movies Davis might’ve made if he hadn’t gotten sidetracked by men with guns.