J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Spring Broke: Blame MTV

Novelist Glendon Swarthout sure knew his Americana. He is best known for The Shootist, the source novel for John Wayne’s final film, but he was also the first to put the Florida Spring Break tradition foursquare in the pop culture consciousness with his Where the Boys Are (also twice adapted for film). College kids had been going to Florida for some fun in the sun since at least the 1940s, but it really got messy and exhibitionist in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alison Elwood charts the evolution of the post-midterm ritual run amok in Spring Broke (trailer here), narrated by Robin Leach and executed produced by Alex Gibney, which premieres this Friday on Showtime.

When Swarthout’s novel released in 1960, Fort Lauderdale was already established as the college spring getaway spot. It was good business for the town, but their infrastructure could still more or less cope. Daytona Beach coveted that action, so they started to lure some of the breakers up the coach. Generally speaking, they got the rowdier, more cost-conscious partiers. Ostensibly less desirably customers, they still fit the upstart ethos of the Daytona Beach Spring Break masterminds.

Allan Cohen at the Plaza Hotel (the other Plaza) and Hawaiian Tropic founder Ron Rice had a knack for promotion, which caught the interest of corporate sponsors. However, MTV took things to a whole new level. While they kept the broadcasts relatively clean, it is not hard to connect the dots between the behavior captured and shared in-house by MTV cameras and the “Girls Gone Wild” videos hawked on late night television. Basically, revelers were invited to act like lunatics on TV and they obliged. Eventually, it just wasn’t fun anymore, especially for local residents.

Somehow, Broke manages to be both nostalgic for and disgusted by the madness of the MTV salad days, just like most viewers. Ellwood also has a remarkably keen grasp of local Florida politics as well as the particulars of hotel-resort management. It turns out the drunken college student business is far more complicated than you would have realized. Cohen emerges as sort of the mad genius of it all, while Rice is the intentionally Hefner-esque spiritual guru. You have to give them credit for their chutzpah and vision, as well as their willingness to dish for Ellwood. She gets further colorful commentary from Dave Barry, original MTV VJ Alan Hunter (how’s that for nostalgia) and her associate producer Ron Hurtibise, a Daytona Beach journalist.

Sure, there are a few bikini shots here and there in Broke, but the backroom wheeling-and-dealing it chronicles is straight-up fascinating. Anything involving this much money and sex cannot be boring. Still, Spring Break is nothing compared to Mardi Gras. Yes, that is a suggestion for Ellwood’s next doc and a vote of confidence that she could handle the madness. Regardless, Spring Broke is recommended as part 1980s blast-from-the-past and part expose, when it airs this Friday (3/25) on Showtime.

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