Showtime’s ‘Spring Broke’ Doc Misses Its Chance to Expose the Darkness at the Heart of a Collegiate Ritual

Showtime’s Spring Broke opens like a nature documentary, with time-lapsed shots of snow melting and flowers blooming. Then, menacing music sets in and a stern-voiced British narrator intones, “Spring: the annual rebirth. The ancient Greeks celebrated spring in festivals dedicated to Dionysus, immortalized on terra cotta vessels found in fine museums.” Then the film cuts to a shot of Homer Simpson yelling, “Spring break! Woo! I’m an animal!”

Executive produced by Going Clear director Alex Gibney and directed by Alison Ellwood, Spring Broke belly-flops into the backstory of the annual pilgrimage to Florida. But despite the film’s promisingly cheeky beginning, it quickly settles into a fairly conventional documentary, and bypasses the opportunity to tell a more interesting and culturally relevant story about spring break.

The doc traces spring break’s development from a 1930s college swim forum in Fort Lauderdale to its 1980s heyday, when spring break reached its bacchanalian peak. It wasn’t just the college kids who were letting loose; one Daytona Beach paramedic recalls of the period, “I was a fucking whorebag.”

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Spring Broke is mainly concerned with the marketing apparatus of spring break in Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, and the businesses rivaling for the coveted 18-24 demographic. In the ’60s and ’70s, alcohol and tobacco companies began pouring into the two cities, sponsoring concerts and events. Brands were figuring out that people formed habits in college that they’d maintain for the rest of their lives; in archival footage, Marlboro reps hand out free packs of cigarettes to the crowds.

In the early ’60s, there was plenty of drinking, but it appears the wildest activity among spring breakers involved throwing each other up in the air on blankets and doin’ the twist. In Daytona Beach, businessman Bud Asher (who later became the city’s mayor) quickly realized how much money was at stake, and he liked how spring break breathed new life into a city with an aging population. Asher became a major promoter of Daytona Beach as a spring break destination. When MTV landed in Florida in the mid-’80s, it broadcast the raucous party to the rest of the country, cementing spring break as a cultural event on par with the Super Bowl.

You’d think a documentary about spring break would be aimed at, you know, spring breakers, but Spring Broke seems far more interested in the rivalry between hotel owners than anything happening at beach level (Allan Cohen, a Daytona Beach promoter, and Robert Friedman, a former MTV exec, serve as producers). Talking heads describe spring break mainly from the perspective of its promoters, but no one pops up with a critique of the fact that all these people made money not just on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, but on the promise of hordes of drunk, semi-nude college girls. There are enough shots of wasted girls in string bikinis to conjure scenarios of what went on in those hotel rooms when the cameras weren’t around.

Only at the very end does the film begin to engage with the dark side of spring break. A Daytona Beach reporter named Chuck Campbell who covered the annual circus in the mid-’80s recalls the less-than-sexy medical emergencies that plagued the city in the spring. “MTV wasn’t a news network,” Campbell says, “so they weren’t covering the blood-stained pool decks, and they weren’t covering girls jumping in the back of pickup trucks with strangers and going off and getting raped.”

After a 1990 incident in which two members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers were jailed for sexual assault — Flea waded into the crowd at their own concert and tossed a 20-year-old woman over his shoulder, while Chad Smith pulled down her bikini bottom and started slapping her ass — spring break was effectively done. “I was pissing against the wind,” Cohen, the promoter, says in the film. The locals had had enough.

But it appears race also played a major role in ending MTV’s seasonal reign in Florida, something that Spring Broke only delves into eight minutes before it ends. “Spring break was lily-white until Dré and I got off our asses,” recalls MTV VJ Ed Lover. In the early ’90s, Ed and Dré (not to be confused with the rapper Dr. Dre), two black VJs, began putting rap and hip-hop front and center in their spring break broadcasts. In response, Ed says, the locals revolted. Bud Asher, the man who put Daytona Beach on the map, suddenly had a problem with this new iteration of spring break, and it wasn’t long before MTV Spring Break began to scale itself down.

This is the story I wish Ellwood had chosen to tell. The final 15 minutes of Spring Broke gesture towards what could have been a fascinating look at the culture of spring break and its connection to current debates over sexual assault, racism, and binge drinking on college campuses. For all its outward campiness, the surreal, hyper-stylized Spring Breakers does a much better job of hinting at the violence lurking below the neon glare of spring break.