Stand By Me

Stand By Me (1986)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, John Cusack, Kiefer Sutherland, River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton
Extras: Documentary, Audio Commentary, Music Video, Talent Files, Bonus Trailers, Isolated Music Score

Over the years, dozens of directors have dared to take the challenge of adapting a Stephen King novel into a feature film. Of those, many have failed – most of them, miserably – and few have succeeded. But, only one director has triumphed over the material, not once, but twice. That director would be Rob Reiner. Earlier this month, we saw his suspense masterpiece "Misery" re-released on DVD, and now Columbia/TriStar Home Video is treating us to a special edition of "Stand By Me." Not only is the film distinctive in the fact that it successfully captures the mood and spirit of Stephen King’s source material, but it also marks a departure in tone for both King and Reiner. Whereas King is famous for horror, and Reiner had only done comedies up to this point in his career, "Stand By Me" is a moving coming of age story, which features outstanding performances by its four young stars.

"Stand By Me" is the kind of film that begins with a very simple plot device, which propels the characters on a grand adventure. The film is set in the fictitious town of Castle Rock, Maine, where many of Stephen King’s adventures have taken place, in the year 1959. A boy named Ray Brower has been missing from the area for three days. Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) overhears his older brother, Billy, disclose the whereabouts of Ray Brower’s body. It appears that young Ray was struck and killed by a train, but Billy is reluctant to go to the authorities with the information. Vern immediately informs his three closest friends, Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) and Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman), of the new of the corpse. The four decide to make a trek to find the body, believing that disclosing its location will make them local heroes.

This group of friends contains your usual childhood characters, especially in King’s terms. Vern is the fat kid who is a little slow. Teddy is the troubled boy whose father is in a mental institution. Chris comes from a bad background and has a reputation for being a thief. Gordie is the quiet and sensitive boy who wants to be a writer. While each has a unique personality, they are the best of friends.

So, this group sets out on their journey. The simple task of following the railroad tracks to find Ray Brower’s body turn into an emotional odyssey. Along the way, the group encounters impatient adults, street hoodlums, vicious dogs, leeches, and a locomotive. While the trip offers many challenges of a physical nature, each boy also takes an internal journey. As the mission wears on, we begin to learn of the problems and worries that each boy faces, especially Gordie and Chris. The boys are inseperable when it comes to facing a threat, but their real devotion to one another comes through when they show emotional support for one another. The simple task of walking across the county to see a dead boy becomes a journey across the line from boyhood to adulthood.

Screenwriters Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans have done an excellent job of adapting Stephen King’s novella "The Body". They understand the fact that the relatively short story (it runs less than 200 pages) will almost fit perfectly into a 90-minute film. So, unlike other King adaptations, most of the pertinent information from the original story has made it into the film. The only major change is the shifting of the emphasis from Chris to Gordie in a decision made by Rob Reiner.

Despite the relative brevity of the film, director Rob Reiner gives the film a very leisurely pace and never rushes the story. This is not to imply that the film is slow, quite the contrary, but Reiner allows the story to unfurl and treats each individual scene with respect. A good example of this is the adventure on the train trestle. Now, the second we see this trestle, we know that the boys are going to cross it and we also know that there’s going to be some sort of complication. And it’s obvious that Reiner knows that we know. So, he lets this scene play very slowly, allowing the tension to mount (showing the mastery of suspense that he’d later display in "Misery"). In reality, this scene only lasts a few minutes, but it seems much longer due to the editing technique. Also, Reiner clearly understands the source material. This movie is about the coming of age of the boys, not about the trip. "Stand By Me" could have easily dissolved into a "Huck Finn"-esque adventure story, but Reiner keeps things very serious and this ultimately makes the film much more rewarding.

What makes "Stand By Me" a triumph is that the talent behind the camera is matched by the talent in front of the camera. The four young actors who essay the main roles do a fantastic job. Wil Wheaton is able to project the intelligence of Gordie without ever becoming sappy. River Phoenix gives us a glimpse of his future talent by giving a powerful performance as Chris Chambers. Phoenix must show the tough street-wise side of Chris, as well as the vulnerable side. Future heart-throb Jerry O’Connell is the perfectly cast as Vern, as he is able to make us both love and hate the character for his stupid behavior. Future "Lost Boy" killer Corey Feldman was the only veteran of the four, having already appeared in numerous films and TV shows. (He’d already cut off the top of Jason’s head and fought off Gremlins by this point in his career!) His performance as Teddy is chilling, as he shows us a boy on the verge of insanity and rage.

The newly released special edition DVD of "Stand By Me" from Columbia/TriStar Home Video is meant to replace their earlier DVD release of the film. This new version features an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1, which is quite an improvement over the old one, bringing us an image that is very crisp, clear and relatively free of defects. There is some minor graininess noticeable in some of the daytime shots, but not enough to detract from viewing the film. The digital transfer does, at times, show the limitations of the film’s $8 million budget, most notable in a slight darkening of the picture in some spots. The source print used for this transfer was free of any major defects, although there are some occasional white spots on the image. This transfer does justice to the beautiful scenery in the film, and the color balancing is right on the target, as the green trees and blue water blend together naturally with the darker nighttime scenes. This <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc shows no artifacting or difficulties caused by compression.

The audio on the DVD is a disappointing <$DD,Dolby Digital> Mono track. While the sound is adequate in the sense that the dialogue is always clear and audible, one can’t help but wish for more. For example, I’m sure that the train trestle sequence would sound amazing in a full Dolby Digital <$5.1,5.1 mix>, and would add a great deal to the scene. On the plus side, the mono mix adds some realism to the golden oldies music, which comes from the transistor radio which the boys bring along with them.

The DVD features a brand new documentary called "Walking the Tracks: The Summer of ’Stand By Me’". This 36-minute featurette offers interview with Rob Reiner, Stephen King, and most of the principal cast. The interviewees offer a great many insights into the thought process that went into the story of the film and how it was ultimately filmed. Several key scenes in the film are highlighted and Reiner and company describe the complications that went into shooting the scene. The featurette proves itself to be as powerful as the movie when each person gives a personal tribute to the late River Phoenix. But, the highlight of "Walking The Tracks" is when Stephen King gives his seal-of-approval to the film. "Walking The Tracks" is a great example of what behind-the-scenes featurettes should be. It offers interesting interviews with the filmmakers and gives us insight into the film was made, instead of just rehashing the plot for us and showing us scenes that we’ve already seen.

Director Rob Reiner provides an <$commentary,audio commentary> for the film. He makes the statement early on that his talk won’t get too technical and he keeps to his word, although he does discuss lense sizes occasionally. Reiner’s talk is very loose and he states that for him it is like watching home movies and he does a great deal of reminiscing about the production of the film. He tells some very interesting anecdotes about the film and the actors. He also makes a surprising statement about how he now questions leaving a very famous scene in the film. Unfortunately, there are also many gaps in Reiner’s commentary where he is silent for several minutes. Also, many of the stories that he tells are repeated in "Walking the Tracks". While Reiner’s commentary is ultimately satisfying, given his comedic background, I’d expected it to be a little more lively.

The DVD features the promotional music video for the title track performed by Ben E. King. The video features Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix joining Ben E. King in a dance, which is very odd, as the late Phoenix looks very uncomfortable. (Also, notice how Phoenix’s hair has grown out to its usual length.) Oddly, the trailer for "Stand By Me" is not included on this DVD, but there are bonus trailers for the films "The Karate Kid" and "Fly Away Home," as well as the obligatory talent files.

"Stand By Me" still stands out as a shining example of what can happen when a great author and a great director come together. The film tells a simple story, but presents us with a moving message. The new special edition DVD of "Stand By Me" offers a superior transfer of the film and some exciting extras. For those of you who own the old DVD, I recommend that you upgrade to this new version. And it goes without saying that this DVD is a must have for fans of the film. "Stand By Me" is a perfect mixture of nostalgia, pathos, friendship, and adventure. And barfing… you can’t forget the barfing.