Trees Lounge (1996)

In tribute to Kurt Cobain: February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994

There are two reasons (of many) why I love Trees Lounge: First: It serves as the screenwriting and directing debut by one of my favorite actors: Steve Buscemi. He’s the type of actor who appears in huge, major studio tent poles—like Armageddon and Con Air—and he leaves you clamoring for another film that centers on his character’s backstories. Second: Trees Lounge has an incredible (nostalgic for me), ‘90s college rock radio gem with a theme song from Hayden. If you love Chris Whitley (who? here, listen to this), if you love the alt-country of Uncle Tupelo (who? listen here), or the indie-sounds of California’s Pavement (listen here), Britain’s Placebo (listen here), or the crowded-kings of college rock, Dinosaur, Jr. (listen here), you’ll love Hayden.

Yep. I love Hayden and the college rock era . . .

And Steve Buscemi also loves his rock ‘n’ roll.

“The Stealer” from Paul Rogers and Free (you know, the “All Right Now” guys) receiving a well-deserved soundtrack position? And we’re not hatin’ on Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” John Mayall’s “Light the Fuse,” Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet” and “Roll On Down the Highway,” and Earl Hooker’s blues chops with “Off the Hook,” either. And tunes from The Ink Spots? Just wow.

It’s an incredible soundtrack replicating just what you’d expect in the jukebox at a decrepit, little bar in small-town America. And we have Evan Lurie, who, with his brother John Lurie (John consulted-scored John Travolta’s Get Shorty), founded the ‘80s jazz collective, the Lounge Lizards, to thank. You know Evan though his music consulting and scoring on a wide array of films, such as the Oscar winners Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, along with the rest of Steve Buscemi’s writing and directing credits: Animal Factory (2000), Lonesome Jim (2005), and Interview (2007).

Check out the rock video single of “Trees Lounge” . . . featuring Seymour Cassel on drums and Rockets Redglare on guitar?

As for Trees Lounge, the movie . . .

It’s of a time and place. It’s of the ‘90s when indie record labels, such as Homestead, Dutch East, SST, and Caroline, cultivated the college rock scene. Meanwhile, on the big screen, studio imprints, such as Miramax (shameless plug: check out our “8 Films of Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures”) and Orion Classics (which distributed Trees Lounge), filled the rising alt-nation’s screens with all manner of indie art-house and foreign films. It was the era that entertained us non-mainstream swimmers with the likes of Greg Araki’s The Doom Generation, Eric Bogosians’s SurbUria, Larry Clark’s Kids, Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Dazed and Confused, Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Mall Rats, Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, and Wayne Wang’s Smoke, along with Bandwagon, Floundering, Gas Food Lodging, The Low Life, Roadside Prophets, and S.F.W.

Yeah, the ‘90s were my music and film heaven.

I know, I know. “Geeze, Marie, enough with the trip down memory lane. When are you going to review the movie?”

Well, that’s just the point: Trees Lounge is Steve Buscemi’s trip down memory lane.

Long before he became an actor, Buscemi served as a New York firefighter in the early ‘80s at Engine Company 55 in Manhattan’s Little Italy. So, if you’re from the five Burroughs, keep your eyes open: you’ll see your old streets of The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island.

Rob’s Body Shop doubled as “Nick’s Service Center” (where Steve’s character is fired from). Scenes were shot at Stobierksi’s Lucas Gardenview Funeral Home and Firemen’s Memorial Field (where Steve’s character is attacked-by-baseball bat). The Assembly Bar on Cooper Avenue, in Glendale, Queens, doubles as “Trees Lounge” (where Steve’s character drinks away his troubles). And Trees Lounge was a real place: after the original bar shut down, Steve purchased the sign and restored it for the movie, but he was ultimately not allowed to use it. (So he gifted it to his friend: a waitress-bartender who worked at Trees Lounge for over forty years.) Another autobiographical element of the film: before becoming a fireman, Steve, as his character, drove an ice cream truck on the movie’s same streets.

Influenced by the buck-the-studio system indie flicks of John Cassavetes (1958’s Shadows, 1968’s Faces, 1970’s Husbands, and 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence), by the writings of poet-author Charles Bukowski (whose work was translated as the 1987 Mickey Rourke-starring Barfly), and Jack Kerouac’s novels On the Road (1957) and The Dharma Bums, Buscemi brings his tales of the lonely, lost denizens of Trees Lounge.

It’s the story of Tommy Basilio, an unemployed car mechanic who, even when he was employed, spent most of his time drinking his life away at a blue collar watering hole where he lives alone in an apartment above. And, as with the tragic-heroes of Cassavetes and Bukowksi: Tommy is a self-destructive, Type D personality who blames everyone but himself for his troubles. (In fact, if you salt Tommy with more violent tendencies, you’d get Buscemi’s Carl Showalter in Fargo.)

In quick succession: Tommy loses his job after borrowing money (i.e. he stole it and got caught) from the auto repair shop where he work; in turn, he loses Theresa (Lorraine “Goodfellas” Bracco’s sister, Elizabeth), his girlfriend of eight years to his boss, Rob (Anthony LaPaglia)—and now she’s pregnant. And Tommy believes he’s the father. To make ends meet, Tommy reluctantly takes over his late Uncle Al’s (Seymour Cassel) ice cream truck route.

Tommy’s logical response to his ever mounting problems: making them worse. And he accomplishes that goal by having an affair with Theresa’s flirtatious seventeen-year-old niece, Debbie (Chloe Sevigny). Then Jerry (Daniel Baldwin), the husband of Patty (Mimi Rogers), Theresa’s sister, takes him to task with a baseball bat and trashes the ice cream truck.

Yeah, it’s only a matter of time before Tommy takes over the stool of longtime barfly, Bill (Bronson Dudley; the “bass player” in the Hayden video) . . . and stares down into the errs of his ways . . . in the bottom of a glass on the bar at Trees Lounge.

The bottom line: Steve Buscemi’s debut as a screenwriter and director is pure magic in a bottle. Not a bad for a film shot for just over a million dollars in 24 days.

And the rest of the supporting cast of Trees Lounge’s outcasts: wow. Rockets Redglare (an actor in over 30 films, he roadied for Billy Joel’s The Hassels and was the Sex Pistol’s Sid Vicious’s drug dealer), Carol Kane (Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls), Mark Boone Junior (American Satan), Kevin Corrigan (Ray Liotta’s little brother in Goodfellas), and Michael Imperioli (TV’s Law and Order, The Sopranos) are each excellent in their roles. Co-stars Anthony LaPaglia and Debi Mazar (Ray Liotta’s coke-snorting hussy in Goodfellas) also starred in Empire Records. And watch out for Samuel L. Jackson.

So spend a day in Trees Lounge—with movie and the soundtrack. You’ll be drunk-in-amazement on how awesome it all is. You can enjoy this soundtrack re-creation (below) that I cooked up on You Tube. And you can watch the movie for free—with limited commercials—on TubiTv.

You can also remember Kurt by visiting our “Exploring: 50 Gen-X Grunge Films of the Alt-Rock ‘90s” feature and our review for the quintessential movie about college-rock radio, A Matter of Degrees.

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.

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