Last month filmmaker William Richert sent out a mass mailing to Chicago critics with DVDs of his 1986 drama Aren’t You Even Gonna Kiss Me Goodbye? and copies of a feverish 17-page letter detailing the movie’s tortured genesis. Based on Richert’s autobiographical novel and produced by Island Pictures, the movie was a coming-of-age story, set in 1962, about a high school lothario (River Phoenix) seducing various women and clashing with his abusive father as he tries to scrape up money to ditch his native Evanston for a new life in Hawaii. It featured a score by the great Elmer Bernstein, an original Johnny Mathis tune over the title credits, another number over the end credits that was written and sung by Phoenix, and the film debut of Matthew Perry, in a supporting role as the hero’s hapless pal. You can sample them all when the movie makes its online premiere Saturday, December 15.

But as Richert asserts in his letter, he lost control of the movie after Island went bankrupt and sold the property to 20th Century Fox. According to Richert, the Fox marketing department decided to reposition the movie as a “teen exploitation picture” in order to take advantage of Phoenix’s newfound fame in Stand by Me and The Mosquito Coast. The Bernstein score and original songs were replaced with a selection of vintage pop hits, a six-minute section near the end of the movie was excised, and Phoenix redubbed the voice-over narration that Richert himself had supplied in the original cut. The movie was finally released in February 1988 as A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon and sank without a trace.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Richert’s story, but of course the auteur school is deeply invested in the legend of the visionary director having his work snatched away from him and defiled by money-grubbing suits. It stretches at least as far back as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and even generated a drama of its own—Blake Edwards’s S.O.B. Whether the movie is Rebecca, The Magnificent Ambersons, Heaven’s Gate, or Brazil, it’s always the same story with the same lonely hero, and by now the movie-going public has absorbed it well enough for the bean counters to cash in on a movie twice by marketing first the studio release and then the director’s cut.

After watching both versions of Richert’s movie back to back, however, I must confess that I find the Fox version superior in almost every respect. Bernstein’s score is great (especially the uptempo car chase about 80 minutes in), but it’s scaled to a much grander movie than Richert’s funky little adolescent memoir. The same goes for the director’s sonorous Orson Welles narration, the text of which gets a more natural, low-key reading by Phoenix. The excised six minutes includes a key scene in which Jimmy reveals his romantic vulnerability, but the rest of the footage digresses badly as the movie is trying to build to a climax. Phoenix’s closing tune, “Heart to Get,” is horrendous, and Fox did the young star a favor by leaving it on the cutting room floor. Even the replacement title is better, though you have to wonder how anyone expected to get either of them onto a marquee. Perhaps in the 80s the marquees, like the hair, were just bigger.