This year on October 10, “Boogie Nights” will be celebrating its 20th anniversary. Released in 1997, the film signaled the arrival of a major talent and future legend. Paul Thomas Anderson had made one film prior, the criminally unseen and underrated “Sydney/Hard Eight” but with “Boogie Nights” film society had no choice but to take notice.
Following a story set in the Golden Age of Porn in the 70s before video came and ruined it for everybody in the 80s, “Boogie Nights” plays more like a montage of stories and characters wrapped up in the excesses of their worst impulses. At heart, it’s really a story of a surrogate family who find home among other “damaged” people.
Every shot, every line of dialogue, every cut is the work of someone with film in their veins. Constantly quotable, constantly re-watchable and constantly entertaining, the film never gets old. It’s jam-packed with everything that makes film great throughout its 155-minute runtime. Besides its length, the time flies by. In celebration we look at everything that makes “Boogie Nights” a seminal classic, because after all, it’s not one but a million things that make a film work.
1. The Ensemble Cast
While the story may focus more on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler, the film is no doubt an ensemble with the dream cast to end all dream casts. Every character has their own storyline and their own reason for working in the industry.
As a surrogate family, they each fill a particular role. Burt Reynolds is the cool father that everyone calls by first name. A maestro who provides a safe haven for lost souls at the price of baring it all. Although Reynolds reportedly hated the film and his character, he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and won a Golden Globe.
Julianne Moore’s character is the “mother to all those who need love.” Her performance brings warmth and grace to the film and her surrogate kids. Heather Graham is the daughter who makes up for her lack of intelligence with beauty and rollerskates that never come off.
Wahlberg is the overachieving son who’s also the favorite, who’s blessed with a gigantic penis and charisma. Anyone who thinks that Wahlberg isn’t a good actor will be proven wrong as he gives his best performance here. He successfully gives Dirk a naivety and vulnerability that eventually turns to cockiness. The film established him as the leading man he’s known as today.
John C. Reilly and Don Cheadle are the family friends who’d rather spend time with this family than their own, bringing a certain hilarity and uniqueness to the cast as the multi-talented jack of all trades and misunderstood heart of gold. William H. Macy is the long suffering uncle and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman and Melora Walters could be the weird cousins.
Rounding up the cast is Alfred Molina with his insane one-scene-stealing performance, Luis Guzman’s eager club owner, Thomas Jane’s ultra-cool bad influence, soul sister Nicole Ari Parker, and the grandparents with money are Philip Baker Hall and Robert Ridgely.
Adding to the insane cast are cameo appearances by the film scorer Michael Penn as an annoyed recording engineer and his boss Robert Downey Sr. And of course, you don’t make a film about the porn industry without at least one or two appearances by real porn stars. Nina Hartley and Veronica Hart fill their roles perfectly.
Fun fact, Leonardo DiCaprio was Anderson’s first choice to play Dirk Diggler but he chose to do “Titanic” instead. Years later he noted that passing up the role was the biggest regret of his career.
2. The Inspiration
Anderson grew up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, which is the capital of porn as Hollywood is to movies. Not that he grew up around it but he’s always been aware of it from a young age. This knowledge (and youth spent watching porn films) led to the authenticity of the story and characters.
After watching “This is Spinal Tap”, he was inspired to make a 30-minute mockumentary short film inspired by real-life porn star John Holmes. That short film would turn into mockumentary feature script and then the film we have now. Dirk Diggler’s story mirrors Holmes’ life. Both were blessed with giant penises, both became huge porn stars, and both tragically fell from grace (Holmes more so than Dirk).
Taking these real life experiences and stories and turning them into a work of fiction helped make “Boogie Nights” into what it is, in a way no biopic ever could. As a screenwriter, you’re always told to write about what you know and the film is a perfect example. The industry’s conversion from film to video, Jack Horner, Rollergirl’s terrible attempt at reality porn, and Dirk’s downfall and addictions were all pieced together from different sources.
3. The Influences
Like friend and peer Quentin Tarantino, Anderson isn’t ashamed to admit his influences, the most obvious being Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” about a similar rise and fall in another frowned-upon industry. Like “Goodfellas”, “Boogie Nights” has long tracking shots, shifting timelines, a host of diverse characters and cocaine-inspired energy and pace.
Anderson has said that director Jonathan Demme was another major influence. Shortly after the film was released he called Demme and asked him if he saw all the shots he ripped off from him. Demme replied by saying he did not. Anderson notes that he may be the only one who can see them.
Another influence is the insane forgotten and restored film “I Am Cuba”, which inspired the shot at the pool party that goes around the party and submerges into the swimming pool. A similar documentary about John Holmes inspired the cheesy admiration documentary that Amber Waves makes about Dirk. And those cheesy action/porn films that Dirk and Reed star in were also inspired by Holmes’ filmography.
There are way too many influences to note but it’s these influences and then some that make “Boogie Nights” a truly unique viewing experience. All the great directors borrow from their influences while creating their own and Anderson is a master at that.
4. The Music
There are many films with great compilation soundtracks but “Boogie Nights” has the best, hands down. The 70s and especially the 80s will always be remembered for many things but the music is always first on the list.
There are many classic songs sprinkled throughout the film from pop hits, disco jams and rock anthems. The soundtrack is so good that it was accompanied by two soundtrack releases, which included classic cuts from artists like the Emotions, the Commodores, the Beach Boys, Nena, Electric Light Orchestra, Elvin Bishop and Rick Springfield, among others.
Before “Guardians of the Galaxy” hit gold with its nostalgic soundtrack, Alfred Molina’s Rahad Jackson was grooving to his “Awesome Mixtape”. All these choice cuts give the film a certain feel; not just in its era, but in its emotions, which heighten or contrast certain scenes masterfully.
Not to be forgotten, Michael Penn’s score rounds up the music nicely, adding to the film what the pop songs couldn’t. Then there are the two hilarious songs which a drug-fuelled Dirk and Reed wrote with their failed attempt at the music industry. “The Touch” and “Feel the Heat” are as hilarious as they are catchy.