CBS Wednesday Night Movie: The Killing of Randy Webster (1981)

Considering its juvenile delinquency plot and rock soundtrack (like an even bleaker Over the Edge), this was certainly made for young adults, but was far too dark for CBS-TV’s Schoolbreak Special young adult programming block. And it’s one of the greatest TV movies ever made. Yeah, I know we say that a lot about the TV movies we review here. But wow. This friggin’ movie.

Once again proving that all actors have to start somewhere: Sean Penn stars in a support role in his first feature film. Before he gained notice for his supporting Tom Cruise in the military school drama, Taps (1981), and then blew up with his roles as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Bad Boys (1983) as Mick O’Brien, he was the undercard in this cautionary tale based on journalist Tom Curtis’s award-winning article “The Throwdown.”

The teleplay was written by prolific TV scribe Scott Swanton in his feature film debut. Regardless of his ratings successes on TV, Swanton only moved into theatrical features — once — with Racing for Glory (1989), a bike racing flick starring Peter Berg (who you know as an actor from Shocker, but as a director from Hancock and The Losers). But on the small screen? Wow. Swanton brought his A-Game with the Calendar Girl Murders (1984; Tom Skeritt/Sharon Stone) and Nightmare at Bitter Creek (1988; Tom Skeritt/Lindsay Wagner). Great TV movie stuff!

The rest of the cast is a who’s who of ’70 and ’80s films and television. Of course, you recognize the adult leads with the always welcomed Hal Holbrook (Creepshow, Rituals) and Dixie Carter from her wealth of TV series. But you also get Barry Corbin of WarGames (as Holbrook’s work partner) and an early roll for Jennifer Jason Leigh, who just came off her support role in Eyes of a Stranger (1981), and on the way to her breakout roles in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Easy Money (1983). And there’s Anthony Edwards, also of Fast Times, and on his way to Top Gun (1986) with Tom Cruise.

The rest of the cast is filled with the familiar faces of Chris Mulkey (a cabie witness; Act of Love with Ron Howard), Scott Paulin (portrays writer Tom Curtis; yes, he was Red Skull in Captain America ’90) and Anne Ramsey (a trailer park witness). Uber keen eyes will also notice the familiar John Dennis Johnson (of 48 Hrs. and Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park) and Nancy Malone (too many TV series to mention), and James Whitmore, Jr. (now a prolific TV director, most recently for the NCIS franchise). And do we really have to go into the acting resume of director Sam Wanamaker? Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977) and “Luigi Patrovita” in Raw Deal (1986) ringing any bells?

Sorry. I know. Yet again, I get carried with the backstories and casts with these old TV movies. You’d probably like to know the plot now, right?

Courtesy of Getty Images/Made for TV Movie Fandom Wiki.

Randy Webster (Gary McCleery, who vanished from the biz after roles in Baby, It’s You (1983) and Matewan (1987) for John Sayles; he’s oft confused with Paul Clemens of The Beast Within and Michael Kramer of Over the Edge and vise versa: that settles that actor-argument) is a troublesome high school student (his buddies are the nebbish Penn and Edwards) who, after a fight with this mom and dad (Carter and Holbrook) and his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on the same night, decides to let off some steam by breaking into an auto showroom and steal a van — and it ends with his death at the hands of Houston police officers. To cover up the incident, the cops use a “throw down”; Holbrook and Carter are determined to clear their son’s name and prove he was murdered.

Oh, I almost forgot. The soundtrack. Oh-ho-ho, this friggin’ soundtrack!

Since this was a Canadian-made movie and April Wine just released their mainstream breakthrough album, 1981’s Nature of the Beast, half of the album was used in the film, most notably, “Crash and Burn” during the culminating cops vs. van chase.

And now, I go off the rails with April Wine love: No hard rock collection is complete without copies of their ’80s “big three” of Harder . . . Faster, First Glance, and The Nature of the Beast (honorabe mentions to ’75’s Stand Back and ’82’s Powerplay). The ‘Winers made their soundtrack debut with their two best-know hits, “Just Between You and Me” and “Sign of the Gypsy Queen,” in the Canadian comedy Gas (1981; back when Howie Mandell had hair and worked as an actor). One of their later, last and lesser and weaker hits, “Rock Myself to Sleep,” was used in vampire comedy Fright Night (1985) (and became a hit cover for the Jefferson friggin’ Starship; just to show how far the ‘Wine whoosed and slipped off the hard-rock tracks).

Hollywood’s music consultants eventually come to realize the majesty of the ‘Wine, with the Canadian rockers earlier tunes “Say Hello,” “You Could Have Been a Lady” and “Oowatanite” appearing in numerous films. “Roller” from First Glance has appeared in Joe Dirt, Machine Gun Preacher, The Heat, Grown Ups 2, and Game Night, while “I Like to Rock” appeared in Nick Cage’s Drive Angry. Most recently, “Say Hello” turned up in the 2019 Dave Bautista-starring action flick, Stuber. And it looks like I’ll have to music consult a film myself to finally get the epic Brian Greenway-penned tunes “Before the Dawn” and “Right Down To It” on a soundtrack. . . .

Okay. Geeze, R.D. Here’s the friggin’ Charmin. Clean yourself up already.

Anyway, The Killing of Randy Webster is one of the few TV Movies that, during the video ’80s insatiable appetite for shelf product, was issued on VHS — with gaudy, sensationalistic sleeves, natch — and you can easily find a copy on Amazon and eBay. But watch out for those DVDs, as they’re grey market rips. What makes this movie work is that scribe Scott Swanton used the Akira Kurosawa Rashomon approach (like Alex Cox’s recently released Tombstone Rashomon) to investigate what really happened on that Houston highway. Just a beautiful film on all quarters.

There’s two clean VHS rips uploaded to You Tube. One with commercials — the for the full retro-TV experience — and one without commercials. And we found this pretty nifty catch-all playlist featuring a plethora, a virtual analog cornucopia, of the “Big Three” network’s TV movies of the ’70s and ’80s. Enjoy! And rock to the soundtrack of The Killing of Randy Webster, aka April Wine’s The Nature of the Beast.

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. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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