Released in March 1985, Desperately Seeking Susan was Susan Seidelman’s much anticipated follow up to her debut Smithereens. Emerging out of the post-punk scene in New York, Smithereens, a low-budget film shot on 16mm, had been selected to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and quickly became a landmark American independent film of the era.
The plot of Smithereens had already flagged up Seidelman’s interest in the post-punk music scene in New York, as had the fact that she had cast the iconic musician Richard Hell in the significant role of Eric, the leader of a once famous punk band Smithereens. The plot, which involves a young woman from New Jersey who initially desires to become involved in the excitement of the New York music scene, can be seen as a thematic precursor to Desperately Seeking Susan in which Roberta (Rosanna Arquette), a housewife from New Jersey, becomes obsessed by a free-spirited character called Susan whom she comes across in the small ads of a newspaper.
The inclusion of Desperately Seeking Susan in a season devoted to musical performers on screen is undoubtedly due to the casting of then rising star Madonna as Susan. However, she was not the only performer who was considered for the role. Reports suggest that the film’s producers were particularly interested in giving the part to Ellen Barkin, whilst Jennifer Jason Leigh and Melanie Griffith are also said to have been considered. By all accounts it was Seidelman who stuck by her guns and pushed for the singer to be given the role. Madonna’s career had begun to take-off after she signed to Sire records in 1982 and with the release of the Like a Virgin album in November 1984 had begun to become the global phenomenon she would be by the end of the decade. Indeed, reports from the time state that whilst she was an up and coming star of note when filming began, by the end of the film’s shoot Madonna required security on set as her increasingly zealous fans tried to get close to the newly anointed superstar.
The success of Madonna’s performance in Desperately Seeking Susan, as is so often the case with music stars appearances in films, lies very much in the transfer of her music star persona onto the big screen. Rather than performing a role for the film, Madonna seems to simply be Madonna, something very satisfying for those who went to the film to see the pop star. In the film the character of Susan has a style and attitude, including her clothes, lace gloves, multiple necklaces, bracelets and crucifixes and self-assured swagger, that are very close to the popular image of Madonna showcased in the video that accompanied the release of the mega-hit single Like a Virgin. That record appeared at the end of October 1984, five months before the film’s release providing plenty of time for fans to absorb Madonna’s star persona and simply see Susan as Madonna rather than a fictional character within the film. The video for Into the Groove, released outside the USA in July 1985, utilised key scenes from the film and in doing so made the blurring of star persona and character complete. It is interesting to note that not many of Madonna’s other film roles have offered her an on-screen image as close to her music persona as Desperately Seeking Susan, and one could argue because of that none have been anywhere near as successful a character as Susan.
However, Desperately Seeking Susan’s links to the New York music scene of the early 1980s go much deeper than simply casting the up-and-coming Madonna. Indeed, the central drive of the film’s narrative is in many ways constructed around an opposition between the ‘straight’ life of Roberta in New Jersey and the seductive, slightly amoral and anarchic world inhabited by Susan and her friends on the downtown New York cultural scene of the time.
The film’s musical connections to that New York scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s is further reflected by a host of brief appearances and cameos from musicians and singers of the era. These include John Lurie and Richard Edson, as well as Annie Golden, lead singer of The Shirts and Arto Lindsay, a key member of the ‘no wave’ group DNA, as well as another role for Richard Hell. With this pedigree Desperately Seeking Susan certainly deserves its place in a season devoted to pop stars, and maybe looking at that list even anti-stars, on film.
Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies at the University of Salford and Senior Visiting Curator: Film at HOME