Rhythm Thief is a 1994 low budget independent feature film made in New York City’s Lower East Side that was awarded a Special Jury Recognition for Directing at the Sundance Film Festival and was called “Inventive, exciting, original” by director Martin Scorsese.
Shooting Rhythm Thief on Ridge Street in the Lower East Side.
|Directed by||Matthew Harrison|
|Produced by||Jonathan Starch|
|Written by||Christopher Grimm |
|Music by||John Horn|
|Edited by||Matthew Harrison|
|Distributed by||Strand Releasing|
Director Matthew Harrison's second feature film, the standard 16mm black-and-white feature was made for $36,000 US. When his first feature film Spare Me won the Kodak Prix Tournage at the Avignon Film Festival, Harrison used the prize to complete Rhythm Thief. The film won top awards at SXSW, New Orleans Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, was released theatrically in the US and Europe, and is available on the Internet and DVD.
Jason Andrews (Last Exit to Brooklyn) is Simon, a downwardly mobile urban white-guy who hustles a living selling audio cassette bootleg music on the streets of New York City’s Lower East Side. Simon lives in a tenement walk-up where everyone calls him “Whitey”. Ludlow Street chick Cyd (Kimberly Flynn), who has a real job, visits Simon for sex weekday mornings. Simon's bootleg-wannabe sidekick Fuller (Kevin Corrigan, The Departed) has innocent romantic fantasies about Cyd.
Enter Cynthia Sley (Bush Tetras) of 1-900 BOXX (an all-girl militant punk band) who, having learned Simon is selling her music, pays a violent visit with her thugs. They beat up Simon and smash his gear. Further complicating Simon's life, a girl from his past Marty (Eddie Daniels, Bad Lieutenant), shows up with her suitcase to announce Simon’s mom has died.
So he can tape a 1-900 BOXX gig, Simon borrows money from Mr. Bunch, his middle-aged mentor. The band comes after him, beats Fuller, and hounds Simon out of the city with Marty in tow. Simon and Marty hightail it to Queens on the subway, ending in Far Rockaway where Marty confesses her love to Simon and they spend a romantic night under the boardwalk at 105th St.
But there is no escape for Simon; he is drawn inexorably back to the neighborhood for a final electrifying reckoning with fate.
In early 1992 Harrison had “a two page idea that I wrote quickly. I didn't want to get caught up in the development process. I had the actor I wanted (Last Exit to Brooklyn's Jason Andrews) and a building to shoot in.” Based on the idea, Harrison and Grimm collaborated on a screenplay.
- Jason Andrews as Simon
- Eddie Daniels as Marty
- Kevin Corrigan as Fuller
- Kimberly Flynn as Cyd
- Sean Hagerty as Shayme
- Mark Alfred as Mr. Bunch
- Christopher Cooke as Jules
- Bob McGrath as Rat-Boy
- Alan Davidson as Otis
- Paul Rodriguez as Eladio
- Cynthia Sley as Cynthia Sley
- Chip English, Steph Paynes, Carla Olla as 1-900-BOXX
- Robin Levine as Diane
- Johnny Kretz as Commuter
- David Fuhrer as Druggie
- Christopher Grimm as Cigar Guy
- Katie Bolger as Razzel
- Jeff Dypwick as Party Guy
In June 1993 Harrison and Producer Jonathan Starch raised $12,000 to shoot the film on a 12-day schedule. Shooting commenced on June 7, 1993 based out of 124 Ridge Street Gallery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I just wanted the DP, his assistant, the sound recordist, and her boom person. (Jonathan) Starch, the producer, was also the script supervisor, the production manager, and the assistant director, all in one. He had the script and a walkie-talkie. We really did the script supervising in our heads.” “Produced In a head-spinning 11 days for just $11,000. Both the cast and crew worked for deferred pay, and the conditions were far from ideal. (‘Sometimes we'd come into the building and there'd be blood splattered on the walls,’ Harrison recalls.) But the production actually wrapped a day early and $1,000 under budget.”
“Most of the film was shot downtown near Delancey Street in a neighborhood, he says is ‘more of a nightmare than the film shows.’ Police were curious about people jumping out of buildings and all the carrying on, but Matthew said they ignored the necessary permits when they found out the crew was only shooting a movie. The police were relieved that they were just shooting film and not shooting people.”
Film festivals and early reviewsEdit
Selected for the 1994 Montreal Film Festival, a Variety film critic wrote “No-budget New York item gets stronger as it moves confidently forward, weaving together the lives of some very desperate Lower East Siders before reaching a quietly devastating close.” At the Boston Film Festival, the Globe printed "Andrews' face projects the perfect mix of sensitivity and self-absorption to power the postpunk romanticism. Harrison's camerawork thrusts us into his film and into his romantic embrace of Simon's crumbling world with alluring desperation. There's another burst of lovely bleakness when Simon flees with his old flame on the subway to Far Rockaway for a brief respite. The shot of them kissing between the cars of the subway hurtling across the bridge to Brooklyn alone makes the film worth seeing." At the New Orleans Film Festival, David Baron wrote “Evocatively written, terrifically acted and grittily shot, it feels more like life than art.”
In addition, Rhythm Thief was programmed at Toronto International Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, Philadelphia Film Festival and screened at the Walter Reade Theater by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on November 10, 1994.
Controversy at the Sundance Film FestivalEdit
Selected for the narrative competition, “Rhythm Thief was justaboutthisclose to winning the big prize at the (1995) Sundance Film Festival.” “When juror Samuel L. Jackson announced the Grand Jury Prize winner in the dramatic category, his endorsement was less than ecstatic.” “The judges at Sundance were split over which film should walk off with the grand jury prize. After seeing Matthew Harrison's "Rhythm Thief," it's easy to understand the quandary.” “Jackson wanted one movie; the others leaned toward another. Shot for $11,000 in 11 days, Rhythm Thief was not just the best of the 18 dramatic entries, it best captured the Sundance spirit of balls out filmmaking.” “The end result of Harrison's eclectic efforts is a film that won a Jury Prize at Sundance, a category more or less created because judges were deadlocked.”
At the Berlin International Film Festival, Rhythm Thief was called “Fresh, bold, mind blowing.”  and “New York's independent cinema at its best.”  when the film played in the festival’s Panorama Section. U.K. distribution company Film Four International picked up all foreign rights at the festival and took the picture to the Cannes Film Market.
Rhythm Thief also played other overseas film festivals including São Paulo International Film Festival, Rio Cine Festival, Gijón International Film Festival, Ljubljana International Film Festival, Avignon Film Festival and Filmfest München.
U.S. theatrical releaseEdit
By mid-1995 U.S. rights to Rhythm Thief were purchased by Strand Releasing, who released Rhythm Thief on select screens in the U.S. For the picture's run at New York City's Film Forum, The New York Times printed “(Rhythm Thief) has the edgy, loose-jointed spontaneity of a hip-hop, avant-funk Breathless,'” Dave Kehr of the Daily News made note of “the aggressive stylishness of Howard Krupa’s high-contrast photography" and "the adrenaline rush of director Harrison's quick, flashy editing." while John Anderson of Newsday called the film “the nasty/beautiful 'Rhythm Thief,' a pulse of artistic anxiety, adrenaline-rushed.” Godfrey Cheshire of the New York Press wrote “this Loisaida scum pond teams with life, and every scene in Rhythm Thief finds new delight in mounting the specimens.”
Opening in Los Angeles at the Sunset Leammle Five, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote “Matthew Harrison's 'Rhythm Thief,' is a triumph of economy in all senses that pops up to deliver a knockout punch.” The Los Angeles Reader printed "Despite its spare look and handheld camera work, Matthew Harrison's low budget feature shows a shrewd command of film-making technique. There is an edgy energy to the film.”
Rhythm Thief won awards including a Special Jury Recognition for Directing at the Sundance 1995, First Prize for Features Florida Film Festival 1995, First Prize for Features New Orleans Film Festival 1994, Best Dramatic Feature SXSW Film Festival 1995 and First Prize Features Sinking Creek Film Festival 1995.
YouTube streams Rhythm Thief as a pay-per-view and Kino carries Rhythm Thief on a fully featured DVD which includes "behind the scenes" photographs, a director's commentary by Harrison and a 20-minute "making of" video. A quote for the DVD release was supplied by director Martin Scorsese reading, "Inventive, exciting, original".
- Aaron Krach, "By The Numbers", Film & Video Independent, August/September, 1998
- Michele Shapiro, "Rhythm Nation", Time Out, November 15, 1995
- Aaron Krach, "By The Numbers", Film & Video Independent, August/September 1998
- "Review: films at Guild Hall", Dan's Papers, June 24, 1994
- Ken Eisner, "Rhythm Thief", Variety, September 3, 1994
- Jay Carr, "The music's bootlegged, the urgency real", Boston Globe, September 20, 1994
- David Baron, "Baron's Cinema 16 Picks", The Times Picayune, October 6, 1994
- John Anderson, "His 'Thief' Almost Stole the Show", New York Newsday, February 5, 1995
- Thelma Adams, "Sundance Heart N.Y.", New York Post, January 30, 1995
- Larry Worth, "Rhythm Thief steals spotlight from McMullen", New York Post, November 15, 1995
- Peter Travers, "Report from Sundance", Rolling Stone, March 9, 1995
- Dan Vebber, "Slave to The Rhythm", Film Threat, August 1995
- Stefan Müller, "Rhythm Thief", Moving Pictures, February 17, 1995
- "Spezial Panorama", 030 Magazin, February 22, 1995
- Stephen Holden, "Living on Despair and Peanut Butter", The New York Times, November 15, 1995
- Dave Kehr, "‘Rhythm Takes Offbeat Look at Lower Standards", Daily News, November 15, 1995
- John Anderson, "A Music Thief in Mean Streets; 'Rhythm' pulses with anxiety", Newsday, November 15, 1995
- Godfrey Cheshire, "Rhythm of the City", New York Press, November 15, 1995
- Kevin Thomas, "Rhythm Thief a Survival Tale of Raw Drive and Energy", Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1995
- Andy Klein, "Rhythm Thief", Los Angeles Reader, December 8, 1995