Many people like to revisit their old neighborhoods and hang out with childhood friends. Normally, it’s a relatively private experience. Unless you’re a rich and famous Hollywood producer, that is. Then, you get to have a movie made about it.
Hence, this documentary chronicling the return visit to his vintage haunts of George Shapiro, who, along with his late partner Howard West, was responsible for a television show you might have heard of named Seinfeld. An affectionate portrait of its titular borough, The Bronx, USA, premiering on HBO, offers few surprises; you’ll earn no points for guessing that you’ll be hearing about the glories of egg creams and stickball. But the film, directed by Danny Gold, offers an alternately moving and amusing exercise in infectious nostalgia that should prove appealing even to viewers who weren’t in the 1949 graduating class of DeWitt Clinton High School. Expect it to run on a loop in the offices of the Bronx Tourism Council.
The doc certainly doesn’t start promisingly, with its cheesy, ersatz hip-hop opening musical number, “Da Bronx,” performed by comedian Robert Klein and actor/singer Donald Webber, Jr. Thankfully, it settles down after that, with the affable Shapiro as our guide to the borough that’s home to Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo.
The Bronx, USA revolves around Shapiro’s visit to the borough where he grew up, accompanied by his childhood friends and fellow “Bronx Boys” Carl Golub and Jay Schwartz. The three alter kockers kibbitz as they wander around their old stomping grounds, including the apartment building where Shapiro grew up: “The lobby looked bigger when I was a kid,” Shapiro observes, in not-so-original fashion. The trio also visit their former elementary school, where they attempt to teach the youngsters about stickball. The kids show absolutely no interest, until they’re given the opportunity to actually play it.
If you’ve ever wondered what retired General Colin Powell, hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Melle Mel and actor Alan Alda have in common, you’ll learn from this film that they’re all from the Bronx. The three well-known figures are among the many commentators offering observations of varying degrees of interest, along with Hal Linden and Rob Reiner, among others. It’s very sweet, for instance, when Alda, who met his wife Arlene when they were both students at Fordham University, says about her, “She’s the best thing the Bronx ever produced.” But it says a lot more about their 62-year marriage than the borough.
Powell, who was raised in the South Bronx, provides one of the most moving moments when he talks about his childhood job as a “shlepper” at a candy store. The shop’s Jewish owner urged him to pursue a college education; Powell went on to graduate from the City College of New York. Klein talks about the doo-wop group he formed with his friends as a teenager, which did well enough to land them a showcase on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. Doo-wop wasn’t the only musical form that flourished in the Bronx; it was also the incubator of salsa and hip-hop. “There must be something in the water,” says Grandmaster Melle Mel.
There are some cringeworthy segments, including a visit to Arthur Avenue by Chazz Palminteri, where the actor strolls around the legendary Italian neighborhood like a king walking among his minions. Entering an old-world bakery that’s clearly been around for decades, Palminteri proudly points out the “Chazz” pastry named for him.
The Bronx, USA, which is light on historical detail about its subject, isn’t purely an exercise in nostalgia. It ends with a visit by Shapiro and his cronies to DeWitt Clinton High, where they talk to several current students, among them Danielle, the 2017 student body president. The encounter between the two groups, with the oldsters offering hard-won advice and the youngsters graciously accepting it with friendliness and good humor, demonstrates that the Bronx’s best days may not be behind it.
Production company: HBO
Director: Danny Gold
Screenwriters: Danny Gold, Michael Mayhew
Producers: George Shapiro, Danny Gold
Executive producers: Aimee Hyatt, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Directors of photography: Matthew Wachsman, Larry Herbst
Editor: Michael Mayhew
Composer: Tom Scott