“Pinball Summer”: the late 70s movie that makes you wish summer would last forever

By on September 10, 2016

In 1983, just a few years after the 1979 Canadian-made coming-of-age T&A-fest Pinball Summer was first screened theatrically in its own country, Film Ventures International re-titled and distributed the film in the U.S. as Pick-Up Summer, after surmising that the the pinball fad had pretty much faded here even though they kept the movie’s main theme song, “Pinball Summer.”  (This trailer is NFSW, btw, for teenage boobies, mostly).

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This sort of rejiggering of movie titles happens all the time, especially in the small-to-medium size independent film market, but at the tail end of the 70s, it was happening to a lot to films (mostly teenage summer comedies) built around fading fads — like 1979’s Skatetown, U.S.A. and Roller Boogie, which we told you about here, both made quickly to cash in on the popularity of disco and rollerskating.

In this particular case, the rise of video games was quickly supplanting interest in pinball machines, although there are some who will tell you that they’re still as popular today as ever (oh yeah, we dare you to make a new teen-themed movie and put the word ‘pinball’ in the title!).

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You could probably put Pinball Summer in the same category as other low-budget teen comedies that feature brief nudity and prank-based rivalries — like 1979’s Van Nuys Boulevard and 1978’s Malibu Beach — and distributors in U.S. were looking for the next Porky’s, which had been released in 1982 to become a boffo box office smash and the fifth highest-grossing movie of the year.

The truly interesting thing about Porky’s, however, was not the film’s story — set in 1954, the film follows a group of Florida high school students who plan on losing their virginity — but the fact that the film was actually produced by a Canadian company, Astral Media, and thus Porky’s actually qualifies as Canada’s highest-grossing moving of all-time. True.

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You can see, then, why a movie lensed in the summer of ’79 and released in 1980, based around the fleeting pinball fad, might be re-configured for the U.S. market just a few years later, but one of the interesting things to point out about the U.S. version is the fact that the girls featured on the Pick-Up Summer movie poster, who appear to be hitchhiking don’t even appear in the movie. At all.

(Plus, hitch-hiking? in 1979? Maybe they were still doin’ it in Canada ten years after the Manson Family murders, but they weren’t doing it much here in L.A.)

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Whichever title you prefer — Pinball Summer was also called Flipper Girls (West Germany), and Pinball Pick-Up (Sweden), for instance — this bawdy teen sex comedy is the kind of film they don’t seem to be making anymore, and that’s a shame.

What’s not to like?: Pinball, custom vans, drive-ins, disco clubs, leather-clad bikers and lazy summer pop songs.

We think this probably have something to do with the fact that somewhere along the way film companies and distributors and theater chains bent to the pressure exerted by the MPAA ratings board and decided that topless girls and teens having open dialogue about sex while heavy petting was something that most kids under 17 shouldn’t be seeing in a theater unless they came to the multiplex accompanied by a parent (and, honestly, what parent wants to sit through a teen summer romp like Pinball Summer when they can be watching some kind of superhero comic book character that’s come to life to kick some animated ass? Right?)

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Let’s set the scene: Pinball Summer was filmed mostly along the north shore of Lac des Deux Montagnes, in Oka National Park, a small provincially administered park located between the village of Oka and Pointe-Calumet in Montréal, Québec, Canada.

It was the first film made by George Mihalka — the Hungarian-born Canadian-based filmmaker who later went on to direct My Bloody Valentine (1981), and La Florida (1993), among others — and was written by Richard Zelniker, whose most recent projects include co-writing and directing a film called Vinyl (no, not the HBO series in production right now, this was a movie that featured Timbaland) and a high-school thriller titled BFF, both for his company Illuminate Pictures (curiously, Pinball Summer doesn’t show up in his credits here).

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The story of Pinball Summer (or Pick-Up Summer, if you wish) follows two pairs of pals, guys and gals.

Greg (played by Richard Zelniker’s brother Michael Zelniker) and his buddy Steve (Carl Marotte) are spending their summer vacation hanging out at a burger joint called O.J.’s Drive-In, and a pinball game hang-out, Pete’s Arcade, where they end up getting into trouble with Bert (Tom Kovacs) and his biker gang who are set up to be the film’s antagonists. (Michael Zelniker, by the way, is one of the only members of the cast that didn’t go on to be in Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine).

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The two female leads are their summer girlfriends, who just happen to be more than pals, they’re sisters: Donna and Suzy (played Karen Stephen and Hélène Udy, who some might remember as Myra in “Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman”) have a lot of fun and wear little itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie bikinis when they’re frolicking with their boyfriends at the lake shore, and they both dream of winning the pinball theme-based beauty contest, the Miss Pinball pageant. They also wear a lot of 70s-style halter tops and denim cutoffs, naturally. Hey, it’s summer and they’re summer girls.

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We have no idea what teenagers their age are doing today, but both Greg and Steve spend most of the movie doing what teens like us did back in the 70s: harassing local townsfolk, driving around in their bitchen customized van, getting drunk, smoking dope, pulling pranks (like stuffing the tailpipe of a car so that is shoots out burgers and fries all over the town alderman) and making out with girls. Sounds like a helluva summer, don’t it? Like the trailer says, this is the movie that makes you wish (a late 70s) summer would last forever.

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Oh, and they’re trying to win a coveted pinball trophy too, we can’t forget that. One of the nice touches here is that the pinball machines were all given custom paint jobs for the film. The first game, “Arthur” has a face on the backglass that supposedly talks to the players, while the machine played by Greg and Bert for the final challenge, “Pinball Summer,” features artwork of everyone from the movie (which is more than a little surreal for this kind of movie, doncha think?)

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One of the best things about the film is the soundtrack, by Jay Boivon and Germain Gauthier, whose music is the kind of bubblegum-flavored soft rock that fits the movie’s personality perfectly.

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Boivin (an original member of Quebecois garage sensations Les Sinners!) and Germain Gauthier (the man behind the soundtrack to depressing Christmas children’s movie La Guerre des toques –aka The Dog Who Stopped the War) were a one-time Beach Boys tribute act, and for this movie they composed songs that sound like perfect like 70s AM sunshine pop, with titles like the film’s theme,” Pinball Summer,” Summer Girls and the ELO-ish “Summer Magic”: these last two were released as a single on the St. Laurent-based label Celsius Records in 1980, who also released the full soundtrack in 1980. The soundtrack LP has become quite rare, often fetching high prices from collectors.

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Watch the movie here:

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • DERP

    This is all amazing. Nostalgic as f–k.