It’s Christmas 2017 and my dad’s eyes explode as he unwraps a DVD of the 1979 film Boulevard Nights, a film he’s talked about for years until my brother finally gifted him a copy. My father raised us on reflections of our culture via all the Chicano classics (American Me, Blood In Blood Out, La Bamba etc.) but according to him this one would take eclipse all of the movies which came after it; to him, this is the triple OG of Mexican-American film.
The story follows two brothers in East LA; Raymond who’s a twenty-something auto shop worker by day, lowrider by night and Chuco who’s a teenage high school dropout deep in the gang life as a member of Varrio Grande Vista. While Raymond used to be VGV himself, he knew when to walk away but conflict begins when he starts to notice his brother isn’t going to do the same. It’s almost two separate movies intertwined in one, one showing the life of a working-class Chicano trying to move up in the world while maintaining his identity, the other showing a cholo searching for validation through gangbanging while struggling with family expectations.
The level of drama in this film is novela-worthy, the powerful performances of the actors make you feel every bit of the story’s tragedy. With the vibrant cinematography, the colors shine off every inch of the screen. Shots of cruising lowriders make the whole scene light up like your walking through Main Street in Disneyland and yet the reliance on purely the dim street lights for the darker scene’s makes even an empty street vivid as the boulevard in your own hometown.
Even the soundtrack of the film carries the spirit of the streets at the time.
From the song “Street Tattoo” by George Benson which was written for the film, to classics like “Tonight, Tonight” by The Mellow Kings, “You Beat Me To The Punch” by Mary Wells, and “Duke of Earl” performed by Gene Chandler, the film’s music honored the oldies that continue to define the taste of Chicanos in East LA to this day.
“The movie came out in the late ‘70s so the sound was a little more on the disco tip or what we call cholo disco, cats that were into that kind of music in lowriding culture, that movie is iconic to the fullest,” says Ivan “Debo” Marquez, creator of OC-based DJ crew Funk Freaks who often pays homage to the film, including using screenshots from the film on a few of the DJ crew’s t-shirt designs. “We find it hilarious these days, but it was kind of a blueprint of our lives.”
Even if the movie is partially a focus on cholos, it’s the first drama to ever present them from an insider’s view and in a non-exploitative way. Boulevard Nights started as a script written by the then 22-year-old Japanese-American Desmond Nakano in 1977 when he took a film class with the Paul Schrader at UCLA. Schrader assigned students to find an article in the newspaper they thought would make a good movie.
Nakano picked an L.A. Times article about car clubs and gangs in East LA, with Schrader talking to Nakano after class to tell him the article could be a real film. With just 10 weeks to complete the script as a class assignment, Nakano started going to Whittier Boulevard every weekend to just hang out all night, managing to blend in as a young person of color so he could get a real sense of the flavor of what’s going on and absorb as much of the vibrant street culture into his story. People were actually very open to talking to him about everything going on there, allowing him to capture both sides from the lowrider scene to the street gangs.
“Whittier Boulevard at the time was like one big party,” Nakano says. “On one level I was interested in the car clubs and the gangs, as a writer, I was really interested in the reality of the people and the culture, what the culture was one and what the culture had to deal with because it’s a subculture.”
Just as Nakano finished his script, he met producer Bill Benenson who took the script to Tony Bill when they decided to produce the film together, finance it via bank loans and later make a negative pick up deal with Warner Bros. once the film is finished. They brought in a young team for the production, with Michael Pressman serving as director, John Bailey as cinematographer and Richard Halsey as editor. The budget for the film is two-and-a-half million and since it’s produced independently, the creators were given a large amount of freedom the film leading to an approach of capturing the community as authentically as possible. Pressman says, “We were striving to make a real serious look at a culture, that drove us and that’s why I feel [it] has survived the test of time.”
“We wanted to capture a realism but at the same time a heightened realism,” Pressman says, “It had an insightful lens, meaning we knew we wanted to capture the culture and not make it a documentary. But at the same time make it a realistic drama but give it some magical enhancement.”
The creation of the film took on the same method Nakano did with writing, with the production offices being right on Whittier Boulevard and the team immersing themselves in the local community. They worked with groups in East LA such as Ayudate Community Center as well as Nosotros to build a mostly Latino cast and crew. They cast an almost all unknown Latino actors for the film including extras, the stars being Richard Yniguez who plays Raymond, Danny De La Paz who plays Chuco, Marta Dubois who plays Shady, Betty Carvalho who plays Carmen Avila and Gary Carlos Cervantes who plays Big Happy.
They also shot on location in the barrios of East LA and on Whittier Boulevard, working with the local car clubs like Imperials to recreate an entire cruise night with a beautifully shot replica with hundreds of cars rolling down the boulevard. “We became a part of the community so in essence, we weren’t outsiders,” Pressman says.
“What I respect about the makers of Boulevard Nights,” De La Paz says, “they went into East LA and asked the culture ‘tell us how to make this movie right, show us how to make this authentic’ and that’s why Boulevard Nights has more truth in it.”
As of March 23, 2019, it officially turns 40 and the complete story of it’s making is worthy of a documentary look especially now since it received the honor by the Library of Congress National Film Registry at the end of 2017. All one has to do now is look on social media, the YouTube videos related to the film or even social media pages dedicated to it to see how popular it still is. The legacy continues to be passed on much the same way my father showed me the movie with De La Paz recently posting an Instagram photo of him with a child fan with the VGV written on his palm. As the only member of the film who makes regular public appearances to meet with fans, De La Paz ultimately feels it’s the realness which keeps the picture alive.
“I think that touches somebody when something’s real,” he says. “I think that’s why Boulevard Nights has lasted all these years, It touches people, when people watch it, they feel it and when people can feel a movie it separates that movie from the pack.”