The history of cinema includes countless films that have remained, for a variety of reasons, in total obscurity. Sadly, many of the films that get ‘lost’ are the ones that really need to be found. 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s is one such film. Here is a film that has been marooned in an archive for 30 years and, despite a brief educational VHS release in 1985, it has gone largely unseen. Until now. Inspired by journalist Jon Bradshaw’s Esquire Magazine article, Savage Skulls, Gary Weis, a filmmaker for Saturday Night Live, convinced SNL creator Lorne Michaels to help turn the concept into a feature-length documentary.
“I’d always liked non-fiction and I read that piece,” Weis tells. “Bradshaw was a guy who wrote about Baader-Meinhof, went to Angola … one of those hard-drinking journalists who went to crazy places. I hadn’t really thought about doing it as a film, but then one week Raquel Welch was the guest host on Saturday Night Live [Weis was the show’s in-house film maker] and her manager was Carolyn Pfeiffer, who was living with Bradshaw. And later that summer I was asked by NBC to do three longer films for their late-night time slot, so I did a couple of comedy shows and then suggested we do this piece on gangs.”
This was quite a change from his best-known previous work, The Rutles’ Beatles spoof All You Need Is Cash, co-directed with Eric Idle. Weis’s original route into the gangs’ milieu was via community organiser Joan Butler and Bob Werner, leader of the NYPD’s Youth Gang Task Force and the kind of cop you would generally assume only existed in the imaginations of late-70s screenwriters and the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage video. Sporting a bandit moustache and Aviators, he’s first encountered unwinding on a firing range, claiming that he’d requested a transfer to his current precinct because his previous stomping ground was “too quiet”. At one point later he’s cheerfully advising an aspirant felon as to why his theoretical plan to kill a cop and “just do seven years” is fundamentally flawed: “Because your life would end right on the scene.”
80 blocks from Tiffany’s is intimate look at life on the streets for young teens gang members. Black and Latino teenagers of the South Bronx struggle to make it on the streets. This is Pre Hip – Hop, Pre Rap, and before Break Dancing took over the youth culture of the Bronx. It is right before the advent of Graffiti writers/bombers and Break Dance Crews that took off and became the new black culture a few years later. The film takes place in the summer of 1979. Shockingly realistic interviews with gang members of the infamous Savage Nomads and the savage skulls. Amazingly this authentic documentary does not contain any of the normal pitfalls that befuddle today’s more exploitive investigative reports on gangs of the ” 60mins.” type.
More than 30 years on, Weis still recalls leaving Manhattan for filming. “It was really like a foreign land. We gave it that title because it was 80 blocks away from where Tiffany’s was on Fifth Avenue and these guys never, ever left the Bronx. All the buildings were boarded up, a lot of the buildings were burned down.” Left living in the wreckage were two predominantly Hispanic gangs – the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads.
Decked out in a strange combination of biker denim and bandolero chic, both gangs now look anachronistic, almost romantic. “I think the look all derived from biker stuff,” muses Weis. “They called themselves a motorcycle club, but didn’t have the money for motorcycles. I did feel scared around them on occasion, but really it was a different time. Now it’s about money and drugs, but to me the film looks more like West Side Story. They were tough guys but it almost looks nostalgic.”
In recent years, the rich visual history of New York City street culture circa 1979 has come to light, mostly restricted to images only. 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s might be some of the only motion picture footage that exists to describe a culture that has all but vanished. The South Bronx of today is a much different place than it was 30 years ago, a world that has long since vanished. 80 Blocks is a compelling and one-of-a-kind look into this time seen through the eyes of those trapped in a domestic war zone.
Much of the fascination in watching 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s lies in seeing a selection of now-lost worlds. The gang culture portrayed may be violently amoral, but it precedes crack and the routine carrying of guns. The film also sits just before hip-hop arrived and self-documented much of the city around it; a street party is soundtracked by Chic’s Everybody Dance and the Bar-Kays’ Let’s Have Some Fun, along with some embryonic MCing.