There are coming-of-age movies, there are stoner movies, there are 70s movies, there are high school movies, there are party movies and there are killer soundtrack movies. And then there is the one that ties them all together so neatly and so perfectly that pretty much any other movie in any one of those categories should just pack up and go home because even on their best day, they will only ever be 1/6 of the movie they should all bow down to: the cult classic Dazed and Confused.
It is the last day of school/first day of summer in Austin, Texas, 1976, and the students of Lee High School are more than ready to begin their annual tradition of hazing the daylights out of next year’s freshmen, smoking copious amounts of weed, drinking all the beer they can pump from the keg, making out, destroying mailboxes and lamenting about how little there is to do in the crap town in which they live. Rising senior Randall “Pink” Floyd is poised for a truly stellar year as the king of the school in a town where football matters way more than most other things, but he’s got a coach who insists that he sign a “no drugs, no drinking, no fun” pledge by the end of the day, and he’s got a bunch of team mates who see him as their ticket to a great season (and little more). Meanwhile, rising freshman Mitch Kramer is trying desperately to avoid a roving gang of paddle-wielding seniors—led by the clearly compensating flunk out Fred O’Bannion—knowing that the longer he eludes them, the worse it’ll be when they eventually catch him. There are a whole constellation of other stories surrounding these two, making this an ensemble of ensembles that coalesces in a single day for an entire high school population as the gather for the greatest night of their lives…until the next one comes along, probably next Saturday.
The 1970s were a decade that was pretty awful in a whole lot of ways, not the least of which was Watergate, shag carpeting, economic stagnation, losing the Vietnam War, avocado green and earth tones everywhere, two oil crises, a really big blackout, pollution, dodgy haircuts, a nuclear accident, disco, rampant homophobia, polyester, and about 1,776 other reasons too tedious to get into here. But somehow none of that was enough to get in the way of every teenager who wore their hair long, had a friend with wheels, had another friend with some weed, knew where the kegger was gonna be, and had the sense to keep the music playing. That’s the thing that Dazed and Confused taps into; not so much a story set in the mid-70s, but more of an anthropologic representation of what a very particular kind of mid-70s experience was like.
Speaking of which, it bears noting that the real hero in Dazed and Confused is the soundtrack, which is probably the greatest 20+ tracks that people under 21 actually listened to back then. Much of the movie’s budget went to securing the music right, but it paid off, as the music become less a soundtrack than a soundscape. In a movie where so much is said and so little actually happens, having scenes driven, punctuated and set off by some of the most awesome tunes that any self-respecting stoner would have playing in their car gives Dazed and Confused a sense of connection. Some movies are boosted by their killer soundtrack. This is practically a movie made to justify its soundtrack. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you give it a listen.
The funny thing about Dazed and Confused is that it should be boring as hell. The entire thing kind of meanders along from vignette to vignette with little to tie the hole thing together aside from a general progression of time as everyone awaits nightfall and the proper partying to begin. But the more we watch it, the more compelling it gets, not because there is some contrived drama unfolding or some grand resolution being set up—there really isn’t any—but because we come to resonate with the kind of small-time mundanity that is at the heart of growing up and enjoying the first of your new-found adult freedoms. In some ways, Dazed and Confused is a time capsule of an era when being a teenager was something it can never be again. And yet, it doesn’t succumb to the temptation to make that time and place anything more than what it really was. Of the many virtues this movie has, the greatest of them is honesty.
That honesty drives the many moments of truth in this movie, from the way in which one character takes solace that nobody will really remember the outcome of the fight he just lost, to the prediction that the 20-something who’s still hanging out with high school girls will probably go to jail for it one day. But the best among them are a pair of similar scenes—when both Mitch and another freshman, Sabrina Davis get hazed. Sabrina gets doused with eggs, made to propose to senior boys and then ride through a car wash, while Mitch catches a really bad paddling at the end of a Little League game. In each ordeal, we get a good idea of what the victim is feeling, and then we see that weird moment when the seniors transform back into regular people and accept the young whelps into their own. For each character, their day afterwards becomes an adult one, with all of the perks that come with it. And all they had to do is catch some unwarranted abuse to unlock their rite of passage to a new world. The tragedy of it is that even these legendary nights are like the fight that one guy lost. Eventually they blur into a general sense of youth. Enjoy the time when you have it. Soon, it all becomes just another detail.