Gary Weis' 1979 film 80 Blocks From Tiffany's, which was just released on DVD, offers a rare and intimate glimpse into a gritty bygone era in New York City's history. This was a time when street gangs (or "clubs," as their members called them) like the notorious Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads ruled the tough South Bronx section of NYC.
The engaging documentary may only date back 32 years but, in terms of cultural differences, it seems like an eternity ago -- back when the Bronx was, as Weis told me in a recent telephone interview, "A whole different time and place. It was kind of like Dresden when I filmed there."
Indeed, the South Bronx captured in 80 Blocks is the rubble-strewn, bombed out looking, New York City that ranked as one of the poorest areas in the nation back in '79. In fact, it was such a rundown, destitute place that both Presidents Carter and Reagan traveled there for photo ops to exemplify the most striking symbol they could find of urban decay in America. It was also the time and place when the subways were covered in graffiti and when a new music and culture called hip-hop was taking root in the "Boogie Down" Bronx, with hip-hop offering an alternative to gang culture to many in those formative years of the culture.
And it is this aspect of the film that has attracted so many to 80 Blocks From Tiffany's, since the film contains rare footage that has been reused in countless other films about that same period in NYC history such as Shan Nicholson's Rubble Kings and Travis Senger's White Lines and The Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug. "80 Blocks is the best documentation of the Bronx during the late 70's right before the gang culture started to fade away," Senger told me via email. He says the film acted as both an influence and a key source of content for his own film about the early days of a Bronx hip-hop club.
80 Blocks From TIffany's trailer
80 Blocks, which Weis based on a 1977 Esquire magazine article by Jon Bradshaw, offers a rare intimate inside look at the Savage Nomads and the Savage Skulls, two of the gangs from this bygone, real life Warriors era New York City. Members resided in the notorious 41st Precinct (aka Fort Apache) and ruled their hoods decked out in cut off denim jackets with gang names proudly embroidered on their backs. "They think they're outlaws. I think they're bums," says Detective Bob Werner of NYPD's Youth Gang Task Force in the film's opening segment. Along with the many colorful Skulls and Nomads members, community activists & other locals, Werner is a recurring figure in this character driven time capsule piece.
I asked Weis if he was ever frightened or scared filming this documentary on the home turf of these at times very scary looking gang members. "I would be more frightened now but at the time I was just a little bit scared, going there as a young guy," he recalled. Det. Warner's security safety net was usually somewhere nearby during filming, but for one shoot they weren't and Weis remembers, "It was almost like [the movie] Training Day when the guy goes to the house, and I went to the building where the Savage Skulls were where I did those interviews with [gang member] Frankenstein and that guy gives that great monologue about being arrested and handcuffed and chiz, chiz -- does all those sound effects...They had taken over the whole building and went in there and during the interview I suddenly realized that Werner had left. He never really was around for any of the interviews but in many cases would be somewhere around like sitting outside in his car or whatever. But at this time he was nowhere nearby so that caused a little fear," he said, laughing.
However, over the course of the summer of '79 during filming, Weis got close to his subjects, the Nomads more than the Skulls. "The Nomads were pretty charming guys, if you can use that word, in their own way, as you can see in the film. "Crazy Joe" Alveraz, the leader of the Nomads, was a pretty civilized guy. He held down a job. And Fly was that kid and he was nice," said Weis.
In the 1970's Weis was a short film maker for Saturday Night Live. He somehow convinced SNL producer Lorne Michaels to help him produce this 67 minute documentary! "What happened was one summer they asked me if I could make three 90 minute films to take the place of when the weekly Saturday Night Live was off [for] a month. So I made them three: one was Diary of a Young Comic -- a fictional film, and one was a thing about the cast and what they were doing during the summer with Gilda [Radner] and all these people, so I did that. And then I had met Carolyn Pfeiffer and through her I met [Esquire's] Jon Bradshaw."
Bradshaw joined Weis for much of the filming of the documentary. "I made it for NBC and they loved it but they never aired it," said Weis. "The reason was a few months earlier ABC had shown a documentary that was made by the entertainment division and aired it as news, as it were, and it ended up having problems with authenticity of certain scenes, the dramatic scenes that were staged. That's why I made those staged scenes look so staged cos I kinda of knew that [ABC situation]. So when they [NBC] saw it... they loved it but were afraid that like ABC they would be sued so unless the news division had put it on they couldn't put it on. So that's why the film lay dormant until people kind of picked up on it now and from a few years back."
In fact, until its official DVD release in late November 2010, 80 Blocks had only been released in 1985 in a limited run as an "educational VHS." However, in recent years, thanks to internet video postings on YouTube and other sites, 80 Blocks gained cult status, especially with hip-hop fans hungry for footage from this sparsely documented part of their culture's history. And rightfully so. Gritty and raw looking, with lots of hand held camera shots and lovingly filmed by director of photography Joan Churchill, 80 Blocks is boldly honest & refreshingly not politically correct. "I didn't go in there with a set thing to do. I wasn't trying to make any kind of social commentary as to who's good or who's bad or any of that business. I just went in there and found those guys really interesting and my intuition took me along," said Weis. The film that non-judgmentally presents shots like one of a little kid, maybe four or five years of age, propped up on an adult's shoulders, decked out in his kiddie size Savage Nomads cut-off denim jacket and swigging on a 40oz beer so big it totally dwarfs the child.
In another scene Weis is inside the Savage Skulls' HQ -- a building they'd taken over -- letting the cameras roll as intimidating & stoned looking Skull member Frankenstein turns the tables on the director and tensions seem to rise. With a swastika flag behind him on one side and a Jimi Hendrix poster on the other, he gets confrontational with Weis, demanding, "Where do you live, huh? You come in with this buddy buddy rap..." It seems like it might get nasty or evolve into a "rumble" but suddenly the situation is diffused when another Skull arrives back from a beer run. With no protection, Weis says that this was one of a few instances, "that caused me a little fear." Currently retired and living in Texas, Weis says that now that the South Bronx has been totally transformed and gentrified, "It's almost nostalgic, looking at it [80 Blocks]."
80 Blocks From Tiffany's is available at each Amoeba Music. The new remastered DVD version comes with lots of extra bonus material (unseen interviews etc/) plus a 40 page booklet and a copy of the 1977 Esquire article that inspired the documentary.
80 Blocks From Tiffany's excerpt