We are riding the crest of another wave of retro-fashion/music/style—or is it just another ripple in the never-ending tide of nostalgia? “La Bamba” is back on the charts, Newsweek puts Elvis Presley on its cover and declares surfing clothes the hip new look, and Stanley Kubrick makes the sublimely ridiculous “Surfin’ Bird” a showstopper in his new movie.
All right, so it’s silly. But it beats facing reality.
With that in mind, consider Back to the Beach, a perfectly timed ode to the stupefying Beach Party movies of the early 1960s. If drinks in coconut shells with little umbrellas are your thing, and the sound of the words “Surf’s Up!” sends a thrill down your spine, we’ve got a movie for you.
Back to the Beach finds the now-married Big Kahuna (Frankie Avalon) and Annette (Annette Funicello) in something of a mid-life crisis. They’ve lived in Ohio since the ’60s, when Frankie swore off surfing after a disastrous encounter with a legendary wave called the Humuonga Cowabunga from Down Undah. Frankie sells cars, while Annette fixes her two kids endless sandwiches with Skippy peanut butter (there are mucho Pirandellian in-jokes in this film).
So they take a vacation with their punked-out son (Demian Slade) and land in Los Angeles. Their college-age daughter (Lori Laughlin) is living with a surfer (Tommy Hinkley), which sets Kahuna’s helmet-shaped hair on end. Romantic misunderstandings occur all ’round. The solution, as it always was in the original films, is for the guys to make the gals jealous, and the gals to make the guys jealous.
This is how it always worked.
So Frankie spends time down at Daddy-O’s with Connie Stevens. Annette flirts with a hunk named Troy (John Calvin) who states his romantic philosophy thusly: “I dig chicks. Chicks dig me digging them. Dig?”
And there’s a happy ending. The fun of all this comes from the loopy affection this film has for those old movies. All the old conventions are kidded, including the corny back-projection shots of Frankie perched in front of a huge wave, and the crazy beachwide dance numbers (here Annette teaches a thousand people to do “The Jamaican Ska”).
Plus, characters say things to Frankie and Annette that you’ve always wanted to say. When Annette hits the sand after hanging ten, Troy marvels, “After all that surfing, her hair’s perfectly dry!” And it is arguably one of the great moments in cinema history when an awed surfer observes that Frankie was once the king of the beach: “Which is extra cool, ‘cuz you look like an Italian loan shark.”
Lyndall Hobbs, an Australian-born filmmaker who has made some music videos, directed this movie, and she’s found just the right slaphappy tone. The whole thing’s keyed in day-glo colors and tiki architecture, and the action never flags.
Also, there are a bunch of goofy cameos: Bob Denver and Alan Hale, Jr., from Gilligan’s Island, much of the cast of Leave It to Beaver, Don Adams, Edd “Kooky” Byrnes, and Pee-wee Herman, who performs “Surfin’ Bird” (don’t tell Stanley Kubrick).
Back to the Beach also contains: a pajama party, Frankie swearing, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dick Dale doing “Pipeline,” and Annette in a pink polka-dot one-piece, which testifies to the fact that she still has—let’s be the teeniest bit blunt about it—a really amazing body. All that’s missing is Erich von Zipper. For aficionados, this film is a must-see.
First published in the Herald, August 8, 1987.
A fond memory, this one. And so much has changed in the world! Annette is gone, Stevie Ray is gone, Pee-wee’s career veered off course, and Lori Laughlin faces jail time. Hobbs did a few TV episodes and according to Wikipedia is now a designer; she was Al Pacino’s life partner for a while. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense. And oh hey, this site is also back, after a brief six-year break. As Ethan Hawke once said, time is a lie. So we’ll just resume as though nothing else happened, shall we?