Luis Valdez directed this film adaptation of his hit stage musical, which is loosely based on the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial that unfairly convicted several Mexican-American zoot suit gang members in Los Angeles.
Except for the spirited musical numbers and an arresting performance by Edward James Olmos as El Pachuco, the cynical conscience of gang member Henry Reyna (Daniel Valdez), the movie largely fails to bring the impact it had on stage.
It’s a stylised, jazzy, often fictional account of four Chicano youths who are accused of murder, spend time in San Quentin and are released on appeal 18 months later.
In reality, there were 22 Chicanos on trial, but Valdez created composites of the 22 in the form of four main characters.
With a scant $2.5 million budget, Valdez shot Zoot Suit in the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood in a mere 14 days.
Being shot in a theatre – with a visible audience watching – creates a barrier that makes it hard for the viewer to feel the anguish the characters go through. The exaggerated, theatrical acting style also doesn’t help.
Edward James Olmos
Judge FW Charles