With the sort of quiffs that a Borrower could surf on, cheekbones that could slice a crusty loaf and, of course, a pair of the finest suede shoes, Brad Pitt and Nick Cave cut quite a team in the 1991 film Johnny Suede.
The movie saw Tom DiCillo, who would later go on to make Box of Moonlight and The Real Blonde, make his directorial debut. For his first feature, he took on the tale of a Ricky Nelson devotee who is struggling to emulate his heroes’ musical exploits, or as the official tagline puts it: “He’s a heartbreaker… lover… loner… keeping up an image can be a full-time job.”
In short, the movie explores how a character’s vulnerabilities can be masked, for better or worse, by an aura of cool. It places this context in the rockabilly/psychobilly resurgence scene and exaggerates the narrative to comic effect. With the help of his friend Jim Jarmusch, DiCillo put the whole thing together, but limited funds made it essentially just a glorified college film that just so happened to have an amazing cast of Brad Pitt, Catherine Keener, Calvin Levels, Nick Cave, Alison Moir, Samuel L. Jackson, Tina Louise and more. It even had rockabilly legend Link Wray providing the soundtrack.
At this stage, however, Pitt was what they call in Hollywood “a nobody”. As DiCillo recalls: “[He] didn’t have much on his resume. In fact he only had two things; he’d done a small Canadian TV series and he’d just finished shooting what he’d listed as his only real film credit — something called Thelma and Louise that nobody had heard about because it hadn’t even been edited yet.” Thus, the film was never quite fated to be a smash hit.
The film might have flopped to some extent, but it was the unlikely launching pad to Pitt’s career as Mark Tusk of Miramax was there to witness it win Best Picture at a film festival in Switzerland and he sent word back to HQ that Pitt looked set to be the next big star. As we all now know, this turned out to be a solid call by Tusk.
Ironically, this wasn’t the last time that the duo of Pitt and Cave shared screen time. In the masterful Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Cave not only crafted the soundtrack with Warren Ellis, but he also makes an appearance as a court singer in a bar towards the end.
You can catch the iconic clip where Cave meets with Pitt like manna from heaven below.