Swing High, Swing Low has long been considered director Mitchell Leisen’s best film, but one whose reputation is based more on received opinion than actual experience. For the general public, the film was missing in action until the 1960s, when three reels of a nitrate distribution copy were found. The American Film Institute finally restored the film in the 1970s after Leisen’s own 16mm print became available from the director’s estate. Even so, the uneven quality of the cobbled-together print has made showings of the restoration few and far between.
Naturally, the Northwest Chicago Film Society stepped in to resurrect this gem from an undervalued director at its weekly Wednesday screening. As a fan of women’s films, I have a strong affinity for Leisen, who made weepies that avoid camp through their sincerity. Some classify Swing High, Swing Low as a screwball comedy, but there are few laughs, as Leisen chooses to focus on the deep, but troubled love between his lead couple, Maggie King (Carole Lombard) and Skid Johnson (Fred MacMurray).
Patrolling the Panama Canal locks on his last day in the army, Skid spies Maggie, a shipboard beautician, looking over a railing at the massive lock machinery instead of attending to her customer (Esther Howard), who is packed with mud and wired like the bride of Frankenstein to a permanent-wave machine. Skid chats Maggie up, but she’s not buying what he’s selling. Nonetheless, Maggie’s ship sinks with the lowering water level, forcing Skid to get down on his knees to keep her in view—this brief and clever image forms a potent metaphor for their relationship as the film progresses.
Skid, disguised behind a floppy hat, manages to entice Maggie’s friend Ella (Jean Dixon) with a bargain price to act as their chauffeur around Panama City. Soon unmasked, Skid picks up his roommate Harry (Charles Butterworth), a hypochondriac pianist, to make the outing “safe” for Maggie, though he really means to foist Ella off on Harry so that he can paint the town red with Maggie. At their final stop, Skid shows off his considerable skills with a trumpet, quieting Maggie’s complaints that she hates the trumpet, but ends up in a bar fight that has the pair thrown in jail just long enough for Maggie to miss reboarding her ship. Stuck in Panama for two weeks, until the ship comes back through, she temporarily moves in with Harry and Skid. Soon she and Skid, a good-time guy and womanizer, fall deeply in love and get married.
The couple works together at Murphy’s, a nightclub run by its no-nonsense namesake (Cecil Cunningham), where they are successful enough to draw the attention of a booking agent from New York (Arthur Stewart Hull), who wants to sign Skid, but not Maggie. Their love is severely tested when Maggie pushes Skid to accept the contract, and he becomes an overnight sensation so distracted by the limelight and the maneuverings of his old girlfriend Anita (Dorothy Lamour) to rekindle their flame that he neglects to send for Maggie. She eventually pays her own way stateside, only to learn that Skid has spent the night in Anita’s room. Although he was passed out on the couch, Maggie makes no effort to get at the truth and merely files for divorce. Distraught over losing Maggie, Skid becomes a flaming alcoholic. Of course, he gets one last chance to climb out of the gutter, but it’s up to Maggie to persuade him to go on.
Yes, it’s a set-up from the word go and one that descends into predictable melodrama. But this is first-rate melodrama that is very shrewd about the character flaws and incompatibilities that were bound to cause trouble sooner or later. Maggie was sailing to California to marry a rich farmer (Harvey Stephens) she didn’t love because she failed at some unspecified career in New York. Her love for Skid is genuine, but she wants a man who is wildly successful, rather than the man she married, who was content to be a hit in a backwater. Despite knowing that Skid’s old girlfriend is singing at the New York club where he will be headlining, she is so anxious to have vicarious success through him that she ignores the risk Anita eventually proves to be.
For his part, Skid is skittish about commitment and the responsibilities of success. He jokes with Maggie about reenlisting in the army if he falls flat, but the appeal is real because there he doesn’t have to take responsibility for himself, only follow orders. He tries to back out of working at Murphy’s, and only makes a go of it because Maggie is there, chatting up customers to buy drinks and singing with him onstage. Despite premonitions of disaster, he won’t say no to Maggie’s insistence that he go to New York without her. He falls back on Anita in New York to be his Maggie/mommy substitute, gullibly believing only the surface of the intentions of those around him. He lacks an internal sense of self that becomes downright deadly for him when he is out of the relatively forgiving atmosphere of Panama.
The performances Leisen pulls out of Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard are extraordinarily intense and nuanced. Some think Lombard’s is her best, and I’m inclined to agree. Aside from Charles Butterworth’s laconic obliviousness and a short comic turn by Franklin Pangborn as the head of the ship’s beauty salon, Leisen doesn’t make the screwball aspects of the film come to life, wasting Lombard’s considerable comedic abilities. But the glow of love on her face is more than skin deep, the defense of Skid she makes when Ella tries to put him down helplessly vigorous, and the hurt and tears that come when marriage ends before love does heart-rending. At Murphy’s and at the close of the film, Leisen brings his camera in tight on Skid as he encircles Maggie with his arms and accompanies her as she sings “I Hear a Call to Arms,” a marvelously intimate and original staging that perfectly communicates their closeness and the way Skid leans on Maggie for support.
MacMurray is a surprisingly sexy and sensitive costar. Leisen helps MacMurray build his character in interesting ways, for example, after overhearing Ella and Maggie argue about him, Skid deciding to act like the cad Ella thinks he is to test Maggie’s devotion. When he learns Maggie is to remarry, he storms into her hotel room, drunk and in a frenzy, feigning gaiety and congratulations as he blows the Wedding March on his horn. The scene is so true to his character and to life, as is the appalled pain Lombard communicates at seeing him so destroyed and out of control. The contrast between the cheeky soldier and the wasted drunk, his shakes realistic, his fear glowing in his eyes, is a shock, but we were prepared all along the way. The depiction of two such crazy-in-love people unable to connect lifts the film out of straight melodrama and into the realm of pure dramatic tragedy.
An admiring word must be said of Leisen’s mise-en-scène, particularly during the scenes in Panama. The frames are crowded with people, rickety shacks, and street life that, even in black and white, seem to throw off the heat of the tropics that makes love grow as fast and as large as the tropical plants edging the frame. I was aghast that Maggie would want to leave Panama for New York, which Leisen contrasts as a sped-up, disorienting place that is both luxurious and isolating.
The original songs include Al Siegel and Sam Coslow’s “I Hear a Call to Arms” and “Panamania,” a great nightclub number sung by Lamour, as well as Leo Robins and Ralph Rainger’s “Then It Isn’t Love,” sung by Lombard and communicating Maggie’s feelings. These songs are really quite good and are well-integrated into the story, something that can’t always be said of 1930s music films. The attention to this detail is indicative of the entire enterprise, certainly a labor of love for the relatively untested director. Add in a fun cameo by a young Anthony Quinn speaking nothing but Spanish and a chicken rescued from a cockfight, and you will find watching Swing High, Swing Low a labor of love yourself.
British director Basil Dearden hasn’t got nearly the reputation he deserves. As one of the creatives at Ealing Studios during the 1940s and 50s, his films captured a specific time and place in his native land and helped to broker the image to the outside world of a public-spirited country working to come to terms with the changing social landscape of a postwar Britain. He had a particular penchant for confronting social problems—particularly race relations—in his films, of which Sapphire (1959) is probably the best known. Originally a theatre director, Dearden used plays as his earliest cinematic material, a well he returned to with All Night Long.
Indeed, All Night Long taps the grand master of British playwrights, William Shakespeare, as a loose adaptation of Othello. As drama, All Night Long suffers in a way many music fans might wish more films would—by featuring prominently the many jazz luminaries who provide the music for an anniversary party thrown by millionaire Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) for jazz singer Delia Lane (Marti Stevens) and her musician husband of one year, Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris).
The milieu for All Night Long is both gritty and exclusive—a loft in a rundown area near Soho, the capital of cool for 1960s London. We know we’re in for a hip time when Hamilton enters the loft to supervise preparations for the party and finds jazz great Charles Mingus plucking idly at his double bass. The set-up crew vie to act as waiters for the party, and then the guests start to arrive.
In terms of the drama, the most important partygoers are saxophonist Cass Michaels (Keith Michell), a close friend of Delia’s from before her marriage, and Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), a drummer in Rex’s band who is desperate to go off on his own. The only way Johnny will receive backing from impresario Lou Berger (Bernard Braden) is if Delia will sing with Cousin’s band. But Delia has retired to prove to Rex that he is her top priority. Therefore, Johnny hatches a plot to break up their marriage that very night, using Delia’s relationship with Cass to provoke Rex to jealousy.
It was smart for Dearden to choose a timeless classic to drive the film’s plot, as he needed something that could stand up to the musical performances that comprise about half of the film. In general, he does a good job of melding the two and pacing the film to accommodate the musical digressions—or perhaps I should say, the plot digressions. For it is impossible to gauge this film’s importance and entertainment value separate from the many legendary musicians who provide the incidental music and jazz set-pieces.
The musician given the most prominence is Dave Brubeck, who is featured performing two of his own compositions, the superb “It’s a Raggy Waltz” and “Blue Shadows on the Street.” The long list of British musicians who contribute their talents to the film includes Keith Christie, Bert Courtley, John Dankworth, Ray Dempsey, Allan Ganley, Tubby Hayes, Barry Morgan, Kenny Napper, Colin Purbrook, and John Scott. Dearden regular Philip Green and Scott contributed most of the tunes and soundtrack elements played in the film. Marti Stevens is a decent actress and terrific British songbird who performs affectingly the ballad “All Night Long” and shows off a more swinging style—intended as a surprise for Rex—with the great jazz standard “I Never Knew I Could Love Anybody Like I’m Loving You.” I was disappointed that Mingus, one of my favorite jazz musicians, had almost no screen time; indeed, his dialog at the beginning of the film comprised his “showcase.” Nonetheless, watching the jam session and performances in this stage-managed loft felt like the real deal to me, revealing Dearden to be a canny verite director with a sensitivity for making music at least partially a visual experience.
In general, the performances of the actors were quite fine. I was particularly taken with Paul Harris, a commanding actor who was every inch an Othello, and seemed to be adept at the piano as well. His demeanor when confronted, bit by bit, with evidence of Delia’s apparent infidelity built with a contained fury that released in a final, near-deadly confrontation for both Cass and Delia. When he knocks Cass over a railing on the second level of the loft, the shock of watching him in a high-angle shot fall and hit a coffee table is sudden and painfully real.
The Australian-born Michell is one of Britain’s finest actors, one who knocked me out as Henry VIII in the BBC production of “The Six Wives of Henry VIII.” I believe I see a bit of the young Henry in his portrayal of the sensitive, but immature Cass who can’t make up his mind about committing to his girlfriend Benny (Maria Velasco). This interracial couple, like Delia and Rex, simply exists in this movie without comment, offering us the colorblind world of jazz before it was widely accepted elsewhere.
As with Othello, All Night Long belongs to the Iago character, Johnny Cousin. Patrick McGoohan adopts rather unnecessarily a mediocre American accent, but not much else about his performance seems off. His machinations are a bit difficult to follow because, like the jazz musician he is, he seems to be improvising his plan as he goes along. Nonetheless, his single-mindedness is portrayed with cold calculation by McGoohan, and his increasing desperation reflected by Emily (Betsy Blair, in a terrific performance), the wife he never loved, in her pathos at being his well-worn doormat.
The climax of the film might have been the wrenching scene in which Rex tears Delia’s pearls from her neck and chokes her, but this film isn’t meant to be a bloodbath. Johnny’s scheme is uncovered by a barely conscious Cass, who awaits an ambulance with Benny at his side. Johnny’s rage drives him to the drum kit, where he beats out his frustration in a brilliant stroke by Dearden and McGoohan. Reportedly, McGoohan taught himself to play drums over several months of locking himself away to practice, and the extra effort makes this scene the emotional core of the entire film. We may feel relieved that love survived Johnny’s efforts to kill it, but the villain’s passion commands our attention as well.
Reggae is in my blood. Around 1980, when I was only a couple of years out of college and on my own in Chicago, I started visiting a new club called the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary that featured live reggae music seven nights a week. Lodged a block from Wrigley Field among traditionalist neighbors who fought the installation of lights at Wrigley for night baseball until just a few years ago, the club’s marijuana perfume and rhythmic music filled with revolutionary messages and prayers from musicians who worshipped Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ were an endless source of irritation.
For a person like me whose early enthusiasm for the blues, jazz, and bossa nova turned into a passion for world music like reggae before it became a market niche, the Wild Hare let me escape the great white stiffs of the Great White North as the only club where I could reliably count on a man—always Jamaican or Ethiopian—to ask me to dance. As I worked up a sweat on the concrete floor that always turned my legs to rubber bands, I could only glance with condescension at the uptight white boys who did nothing but sit at the bar drinking Guinness at one of the few places in the city that served it while I chanted uncomprehendingly (and probably offensively) “Jah Rastafari” along with the band.
Along with local and small touring bands, a lot of big reggae stars played at the Ethiopian-owned club, including Jimmy Cliff, Dallol, and Shabba Ranks. The biggest star of them all, Bob Marley, was already too big a draw by the time the Wild Hare opened to play there. He made his one small-club appearance in Chicago at another of my hangouts, The Quiet Knight, back in 1975, but alas, I had not caught rasta fever in time to see him. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea he had played there; a mention of the appearance is only one of numerous eye-opening facts I learned while watching Marley.
From its conception in 2008, Marley was meant to be the definitive documentary about the life of the Jamaican superstar. Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, both superb craftsmen of music documentaries, picked up and then dropped the project. It fell to Kevin Macdonald, an impressive documentarian in his own right with a spotless film pedigree as the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, to meld archival footage with talking heads to tell the cradle-to-grave story of Bob Marley. Ziggy Marley, the oldest son of Bob and his wife Rita, acted as an executive producer of the film and provided photographs and footage that had never been exhibited publicly to help flesh out many facets of his father’s life.
One important facet of Bob Marley’s life was that he was so-called “half-caste,” with a white English-Jamaican father and a black Jamaican mother. The film shows the only known photo of Norval Marley, a handsome plantation overseer who was “the” Marley of Jamaica until his charismatic son took over that title. Norval had almost no contact with Bob and his mother, traveling constantly and fathering other children with other women, a practice Bob would pick up along with his father’s good looks. Bob would also deal with the prejudice against half-castes by saying his allegiance belonged to the god who chose to make him half-black and half-white; his shaky status and his life with his black mother most likely turned him toward his African heritage and his pride that Africa is the place where the human race began.
Marley has footage of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, a rather funny portion of the film in which we learn that Selassie emerged from the airplane in Kingston, saw the massive crowd on the tarmac, and turned right around and went back in. Selassie’s visit, however, marked a turning point for Marley in becoming a Rastafarian and growing his trademark dreadlocks. Scenes of Marley smoking marijuana in spliffs and pipes, lost in a haze of smoke, follow. Marley’s wife admits that Bob was almost perpetually stoned, though whether you view this as the religious devotion Rastafarians say it is or a consequence of being a poor musician, or both, is up to you.
Regardless of your views, there is something to the assertion in the film that pot smokers are laid back and peaceful, something Marley and his band The Wailers always preached and lived. It is rather amazing to see footage of two violently opposed political groups in Jamaica come together briefly during Marley’s 1978 One Love tour and Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) join his rival from the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, onstage at Marley’s urging. This gesture is even more extraordinary considering that extremists tried to kill Marley and The Wailers at his Hope Road compound only two years before when a planned free concert by Marley was coopted for political capital by the PNP, angering JLP supporters.
Interviews with family members and intimates are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the film, which mainly concentrates on Marley and the music. Incredibly, Macdonald talks with Mrs. James, Bob’s grade school teacher when he lived in his rural hometown of St. Ann, who remembers his musicality. After Bob and his mother moved to a Kingston slum called Trench Town, Bob met aspiring musician Desmond Dekker. Jimmy Cliff recalls auditioning and recording Dekker, and then being approached by Marley. He immediately noted Bob’s use of lyrics to convey a message, recalling Marley’s first recording “Judge Not” as an assertion of his human rights; Macdonald shows a young boy looking stern and punching the air as the song plays in the background.
Thus, the interviews become voiceovers with scenes that illustrate what the speakers are discussing, for example, a tall Rastafarian walking along a street in Trench Town with his enormous dreadlocks piled high under a knit hat and Marley’s song “Knotty Dread” playing under the voiceover. A result of this “reenactment” is that we get a sense of Bob Marley’s life as it was lived, a visual representation of his inspiration, and lively and colorful images that invite audiences to participate rather than nod off to a wall of words. Amusing and interesting capsule facts are scrawled on the screen as well, such as that there is no record that “Captain” Norval Marley ever rose above the rank of private.
Each step in Marley’s rise to superstardom is given attention, with remembrances from such figures in his life as childhood friend and original band member Neville “Bunny” Livingston; Chris Blackwell, who signed the Wailers to Island Records; and manager Danny Simms. Simms recalls how ambitious Marley was, agreeing to open for The Commodores in Madison Square Garden less than a year before his death so that American radio stations would play his records. Marley may have thought that the concert and radio plays would find him an audience among African Americans, which seemed as indifferent to Marley as white audiences were enraptured by him. The film is chock-full of concert footage and music, charting his career in a way any fan will absolutely adore.
Marley’s personal life adds to the film’s well-rounded portrait of the artist. Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976 and Marley’s most famous lover, figures prominently in the film; when asked why Marley attracted so many women, she says incredulously, “Look at him!” Rita Marley seems to have had a laissez-faire attitude to Bob’s lovers and their children (she took lovers of her own), and thought that the key to his romantic success was that he was shy, recalling their own courtship. Cedella Marley, Rita and Bob’s daughter, is not so forgiving of the free love that pervaded her parents’ life, asserting that her mother was made unhappy by Bob’s philandering. In truth, Cedella seems the most unhappy with her father, complaining throughout the film of his lack of attention and even a lack of time alone with him in the days before his death.
Most informative and touching for me was an account of Marley’s final illness. I had always heard he had brain cancer, the joke going around that the ganga got him. In fact, in 1977, he was spiked in the toe while playing soccer, and when he went to have it looked at, the doctors diagnosed him with melanoma in the nail bed. Marley refused advice to have the toe amputated, worrying that he would not be able to dance or play soccer. In 1980, after a run in Central Park, Marley collapsed. When he was taken to the hospital, he was found to be riddled with cancer. Without real hope for recovery, he played his last concert in Pittsburgh, lost his dreadlocks to chemotherapy, and vainly sought relief at a holistic clinic in Germany. The film concludes by showing his burial site in St. Ann and surveying Marley’s lasting influence on world culture.
There is a lot of information out there about Bob Marley, much of it false or half-true. Marley is a treasure to fans and future generations who want as accurate and big a picture as may be possible on film of a man who freed a lot of people with his music.
Live concert audio from The Quiet Knight in Chicago, 1975
In today’s 10-minute news cycle, it’s waaaay old news that Davy Jones, the British performer who gained everlasting fame as one of the members of TV’s pop music group The Monkees, died last week. Like many other people, I felt sad at the passing of a likeable member of a band who represented the era of my youth. I was the right age to watch The Monkees on NBC—and I did—and their truly great pop music was all over the radio. But try as I might, I can’t remember much of anything about the show, and my interest in it and The Monkees faded, whereas a TV contemporary, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, is very easy for me to see in my mind’s eye. The Monkees was essentially a harmless kids show populated with cuddly pop icons parents felt comfortable letting their children idolize, and even back then, I already felt too old to really appreciate their charms.
Nonetheless, The Monkees were very popular, and a movie was sure to follow. Head proclaimed itself the “most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made (And that’s putting it mildly).” This boast, with the parenthetical phrase underlining it like a smear of cheap lipstick, kind of sums up what’s wrong with Head. The writing, a collaboration of all four Monkees (Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz), Rafelson, and coproducer Jack Nicholson, is confused and so far outside the image The Monkees created that the film’s quick failure was practically a foregone conclusion.
The film wants to be taken seriously as a statement from stars who do not wish to be confined to the G-rated TV group fans had come to know. It opens with the Monkees running from an angry horde during a bridge dedication and Micky escaping by jumping to his death off the bridge. This is followed by a spoken ditty in which the Monkees admit to being nothing more than a manufactured pop group as the frame fills up with TV screens and culminates with the infamous execution of a Viet Cong operative. Equally unexpected is a sequence in which famed San Francisco stripper Carol Doda plays a groupie who kisses each Monkee with ardor and then laughingly dismisses them all. So hit ’em with suicide, war, murder, and sex right at the start—and then it’s back to a film jam-packed with lovable hijinks that we have now been clued may have an underlying meaning.
As was typical of youth counterculture movies of the time, and The Monkees TV show specifically, a loose anarchy explodes on the screen full of non sequiturs and visual gags. The film pretends to break the fourth wall frequently, for example, when Micky is in a Western and a pioneer woman (Teri Garr) who has been bitten by a snake tells him to suck the venom from her finger. He ignores her and she “dies,” only to revive as the actress she is when he kicks her, quits the scene, and breaks through the cheap scenery. Later, a lavish birthday party sequence is cut short when Mike announces that he hates surprises and doesn’t want his birthday celebrated. His anger isn’t convincing, a reminder that only two of the Monkees had any acting experience before their show debuted and an Achilles heel in selling an artifice vs. reality premise for this movie.
Dolenz, the strongest actor and singer of the group, has perhaps the best scene in the film. After he has jumped off the bridge, he believably plays dead as he moves through the water, now solarized into many psychedelic colors. Mermaids come to his rescue, and the dreamy, trippy “The Porpoise Song” ushers in a visually intense and beautiful scene. I was reminded a bit of the profoundly moving De Profundis, which, for me, pays this part of the film a very high compliment indeed.
Peter’s hippy-dippy persona, a reflection of his early career as a folk singer, is pounded home as he visits with a guru in a steam bath who gives him the answer to the question of free will versus scripted reality the film plays with constantly. The guru has some interesting things to say about it not mattering if actions are predetermined if the actors can authentically live their lives within these actions, but this philosophy is undercut by the ridiculous setting and a final statement, “I know nothing,” that sounds like the kind of nonsensical conundrum people use to scoff at eastern philosophies. This scene takes aim at the Beatles in their quest for enlightenment, as well as their status as earthly gods to their more rabid fans. However, it’s also a bit confused, since Head seems to show The Monkees on a similar quest.
In a scene of great poignancy, Davy sings a sanitized, but still sad version of “Daddy’s Song,” written by Harry Nilsson, the man who turned down a chance to be a Beatle. Wearing an Edwardian-style suit, he performs the song on a dark, empty soundstage, a demonstration of his own personal history as a musical theatre star. When he emerges, Frank Zappa leading a steer stops to chat with him. He warns Davy not to be distracted from making his music, and then says he likes how Davy has been working on his dancing. This absurdist scene was probably included just to give Mike Nesmith’s buddy Zappa a cameo, but it does trivialize a rather moving scene.
Which leads me to wonder what exactly is going on here. Is Head a subversion of The Monkees’ personae and careers, or is it business as usual as a comedy-variety show? The hubby has explained that The Monkees wanted to be taken seriously as musicians and a legitimate band, to be allowed to grow past their prepubescent fan base. At the same time, it was that fan base who was going to go out to see Head. This film could have been a deliberate bomb designed to destroy their image and leave them free to have an adult career. The pointed moment when the boys all jump off the bridge and swim away to some kind of freedom is mitigated when the camera pulls back and shows them trapped in a tank of water being returned to its place in a warehouse. If The Monkees thought their fans would sympathize with their plight, they were not only mistaken, but cruel.
I’ve got a real problem with artists who blow a raspberry in children’s faces. There are many ways to move into independence and a mature career without disrespecting the children who have enjoyed and bolstered one’s early work. The fact that Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Tork endure as The Monkees in people’s memories shows that they did their jobs very well and they chose the worst possible way to signal they were ready to evolve. Head can be as disrespectful as it likes to the Hollywood dream factory, which can take it and often deserves it. But by being truly angry with their fans, The Monkees guaranteed they would never find their way out of their self-made box, for how could we ever trust them again.
I had a Top 10 best time at the movies last night as the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society treated film buffs to another rare morsel—Douglas Sirk’s Old West confection Take Me to Town—something this classic film program has done for 40 years. When it lost its home after the last of a series of bank owners sold the Portage Park bank building where the cinema was housed, young film buffs Julian Antos and Becca Hall struck a deal with the nearby Portage Theater to join their revival programming. When the NCFS had to move from its previous Saturday-night slot to Wednesday night, many of us were worried that audience numbers would dwindle and that the program would gasp its last. Happily, audiences have been enthusiastic, and NFCS will be back in September for another season.
Antos and Hall seem to be stuck on Sirk, inaugurating their new home with Written on the Wind and securing the very rare The First Legion at the previous venue. Hall explained that the 35mm archival print of Take Me to Town they secured from Universal is rarely screened because it was made with a transitional soundtrack that most projectors are not equipped to read. However, a simple change of a red LED bulb to a white bulb made the sound, if not perfect, quite acceptable, and the Technicolor print was visually vibrant. By showing Take Me to Town, Antos and Hall have championed yet another film in the Sirk canon that deserves to be better known.
Take Me to Town is a Western with music and dancing girls, cops and robbers, preachers and pious townspeople—the whole nine yards. It is not a musical, but rather another one of Sirk’s brilliant realizations of a milieu that seems familiar from a hundred different films, but that takes the time to be individual and confound our expectations with careful observations of how people really live and act.
The film opens on a train. A vendor is hawking apples, magazines, cigars, and other sundries as he walks the aisle of the two-car train. Isolated in one of the cars is a “fancy” woman—Mae Madison (Ann Sheridan)—sitting with two men. She asks the vendor for something to keep her cool, pulls a magazine out of his basket, and hands the vendor a quarter, though he says the stories are not likely to cool her off. She begs to differ, as she fans herself with her purchase. When Mae learns they are an hour from their destination, she announces she needs to use the facilities. Only then do we see that she is handcuffed to the man sitting next to her. The man sitting opposite her unlocks her cuff, locks his own wrist to the man, and Mae steps into the ladies room.
Mae breaks out the window and jumps to freedom. The man she was cuffed to, Newton Cole (Phillip Reed), is dragged out of his seat by the U.S. Marshall, Ed Daggett (Larry Gates), as he investigates the noise. Cole takes the opportunity to brain Daggett with a vase and grab the key to unlock the cuffs. He dumps the unconscious Daggett off the train. Mae makes her way to a train station where she buys a ticket north to the logging community of Timberline. She assumes the name Vermillion O’Toole and stars in the dance-hall show at the Elite Opera House, which is owned by her friend Rose (Lee Patrick).
In a neighboring town, folks aren’t too happy that the Elite Opera House exists. Most of the residents are pious and prudish, particularly Edna Stoffer (Phyllis Stanley), who has her eye on handsome widower Will Hall (Sterling Hayden). She offers to look after his three young sons, Corny (Lee Aaker), Petey (Harvey Grant), and Bucket (Dusty Henley), while he takes off for a few days’ work at a nearby logging camp. The adorable, blond boys don’t like her (“I hate her,” Bucket says, which, with “I like her (it),” is the only sentence he utters.) and decide to look for a more agreeable woman to be their new mother. The three boys ride together on one horse to the opera house, dismount with the help of a convenient tree stump, and are instantly smitten with Vermillion. They invite her to stay with them, and when both Cole and Daggett show up in town after having seen her picture in the Pictorial Gazette, she agrees. While cooling her heels away from Timberline, she and Will meet, fall in love, and confound the prejudices of the community by making their “housekeeping” relationship permanent.
With a plotline as old as the West, what makes this film so different from so many others? Without question, it’s the film’s honesty, sincerity, and willingness to engage with reality. In a film of the same era and ilk, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the lumberjacks swing their axes in time to the music and fall in love with the first women they see. In Take Me to Town, Sirk allows his actors to do real tree-felling work, like putting their shoulders into cross-sawing, and he seamlessly inserts footage of tree-topping, which is as dangerous as it is awe-inspiring to watch. Will repeatedly rejects Edna, while declaring her a good woman nonetheless, and knows how to respect his own space when Vermillion must spend a night in his cabin. We also hear about Daggett’s determination to get Cole and Vermillion because he was nearly killed when he was thrown from the train—this isn’t a cartoon fall, where a character punches a 10-foot hole in the ground and crawls out of it. A final fight scene that occurs is uniquely staged, as Cole scrambles up a steep incline, with Daggett and Will chasing after him and holding onto vegetation to keep from sliding down. A steep drop into a pool of water fed by a waterfall looms in the background, but instead of ending the scene with Cole’s death, he merely rolls toward the edge and stops, knocked cold from the fall.
Will turns out to be a part-time preacher who is trying to build a church. He forces his congregation to live their ideals when he welcomes Vermillion to stay on and pushes her into community affairs. When a congregant openly challenges him on letting a woman of Vermillion’s type sit in their church—an open-air affair until funds can be raised to build a proper one—Will points out that they are outside where the church wall would have stood and belts him for his unchristian insolence. It’s also the first substantial clue we have that Will has fallen for Vermillion.
Vermillion herself is a little too good to be true, perhaps a sign of the repressed times in which the film came out. She’s been convicted of being an accessory to Cole’s illegal operations at his Denver dance hall, but she asserts she didn’t know what was going on—in other words, it’s o.k. with the Hays Code for her to go free. She clearly is a good-time girl, but she knows how to cook, sew, and clean house, and she falls instantly for Will’s three boys. In other words, she’s actually a good mother and homemaker trapped inside a vavoom body and eager to clean up her act and serve as the town’s schoolteacher, as her theme song “The Tale of Vermillion O’Toole” tells us she becomes.
However, this is Ann Sheridan we’re talking about. Sheridan is one of the most talented actresses to come from mid-century America, infusing clichéd scripts with nuance and showing a willingness to play against the grain of the story. She’s given exceptionally good dialogue in the smart, full script by Richard Morris (who rather specialized in good-time girls, with The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Thoroughly Modern Millie to his credit). And she makes the most of it, treating the boys’ declaration that they are “looking for a woman” with a little surprise, but a lot of understanding and dignity. She’s a hard taskmaster to the townspeople as she rehearses them like the pro she is for a fundraising theatrical she has organized. When Edna quits, taking her piano with her, Vermillion is venomous to her. While we might understand Vermillion’s emotional outburst based on how she’s been high-hatted and put down by Edna, there’s an edge to Sheridan’s attack that makes it clear she’s got a strong streak of nasty in her that is pushing some good people too far. She’s also a sensualist who dances uninhibitedly and displays her sexual attraction to Will openly. Thus, Sheridan risks alienating our good will toward her character for the sake of a more truthful performance.
This is also Douglas Sirk we’re talking about. He was a religious man who explored faith in quite a few of his films. This film is no different, as Will’s congregation voices sincere and convincing belief that sin is real, and that Vermillion and the Elite Opera House are bringing it unwillingly into their lives. Their view is intolerant, and Will confronts them on it, but the debate is serious and not offered up for laughs the way other aspects of the film are. Hayden is a sexy, believable lumberjack, but he’s also a very convincing man of God, a departure from his more numerous tough-guy roles.
Sirk is also well known for racy innuendo in his famous melodramas, and he indulges the double entendres in the script with relish, allowing that Will likes Vermillion’s “meat pies,” a line put into little Corny’s mouth for a little extra kick of perversity. He ends the film happily, but leaves a question dangling in the air about whether the rather boring life of a preacher’s wife in a backwoods town will be enough for a worldly woman like Vermillion. As long as the sex with Will is good, I think it will be.
For decades, song and dance were well-respected staples in Hollywood films, making legends of Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and many, many other talented performers. As the supply of seasoned musical talent dried up with the extinction of vaudeville and hard times fell on both Hollywood and a nation rapidly losing its innocence to televised war and assassination, the movie musical all but disappeared.
While white America was busy debriding and closing its wounds, other American subcultures continued to crave music and dance on screen. Perhaps it was MTV’s music videos, which debuted in the 1980s, that caught the attention of some Hollywood producers, but dance-filled films aimed primarily at the youth market slowly started trickling out of the dream factory again. White faces could still be found in films like Footloose and Dirty Dancing, but the breakout hit and trendsetter of the decade, Flashdance, starred Jennifer Beals, a mixed-race actress. From then on, dance films remained largely an entertainment of minority audiences.
In 1998, the perhaps inevitable pairing of a pop singer with an actress/dancer, providing a blend that film producers could understand and bank on, took place. Puerto Rican singing idol Chayanne was teamed with Vanessa Williams, a beauty queen who was proving to be an effective screen presence, for Dance with Me, an entry in the growing ballroom dance subgenre. The film effectively mixes family drama and love story with street dancing and formal dancing—a combination that made Flashdance such a potent force for audiences. Yet, it slyly lampoons the Reader’s Digest approach to dance (“8 to 80, anyone can do it, makes you feel good”) by drawing a porous, but definite line between amateur and professional dancers that proves to be a credit to both.
The film opens onto the lively streets of Santiago de Cuba, where the sway of music and dance seems to fill even the most mundane of chores. We follow Rafael Infante (Chayanne) to a cemetery, where he lays flowers on the grave of his mother. At home, he regards a letter addressed to a John Burnett (Kris Kristofferson) in Houston, Texas. Soon, he receives an answer to his letter telling him there is a job for him—a favor to Rafael’s mother, with whom Burnett had an affair on a cruise ship. Rafael has not yet told Burnett that he is the father Rafael never knew.
At the Houston airport, he is met by Ruby (Williams), who takes him to the dance studio Burnett runs. Ruby dashes off to teach a class, and Rafael is left to regard the students and employees of the lived-in studio. Burnett arrives, orients him quickly to his duties as the studio handyman and takes him to his home; Rafael will live in a walk-up apartment adjacent to the main house. Burnett declines Rafael’s request to go out for drinks, as he dashes back to the studio. Thus abandoned with his dashed hopes that he and his father would find immediate rapport, we experience along with Rafael the uncertainty of a new immigrant.
There’s no question that there will be a serious romance between the alliteratively named Ruby and Rafael—they simply look too good together—but there is Ruby’s defensiveness after a disastrous relationship with her former dance partner (professional Latin-division dancer Rick Valenzuela) and Rafael’s offensive clumsiness to contend with first. When Rafael watches Ruby and her new partner Michael (Harry Groener—who knew The Mayor from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer could dance so well?!) practicing, he wonders how they can dance without music. Ruby, practicing her footwork dancing around a pillar while Michael takes a break, says, “It’s choreography.” He presses his point that it should be the music that tells a dancer what to do, insulting Ruby’s professionalism. She returns the insult when she accedes to Rafael’s request that she teach him how to dance at a local salsa club, and she catches him dancing quite well with another woman while she was in the restroom. “Why didn’t you tell me you could dance?” she asks him accusingly. “I’m Cuban. Of course I can dance,” he replies, as though she has rocks in her head, “just not the way you do.”
Haines offers these exchanges to set up themes about the dance world that complement the story and make the connection between a love of dance and a love of life. In the amateur world, the joy of the music and communality, such as when Ruby and Rafael slow dance at an engagement party they happen into and a second, more successful attempt at clubbing, help Ruby put her life into perspective. At the same time, the pro-am competition for which studio regular Patricia (Jane Krakowski) is preparing with John as her partner shows that even an amateur can aspire to be the best she can be as an expression of the love she feels for dance. John, who has grown tired and lost his passion for dance, also has a solitary personal life. It is only when he realizes belatedly what he might be missing after an angry confrontation with Rafael in which his secret is revealed that his interest in dance renews.
Randa Haines, director of the highly honored drama Children of a Lesser God, might have been expected to emphasize the film’s dramatic story. But she shows her versatility and intelligence by using the clichés in which the script trafficks as punctuation for the dance sequences, where the emotional lives of characters play out with much more nuance and effect. The stunning artistry of Krakowski took me by surprise. Obviously a trained dancer, she creates a passionate pas de deux with Rafael at the championship that subtly tells half the story of the Rafael/Ruby romance.
When Ruby dances with her former partner in the other half of the story, she spots Rafael in the audience; overjoyed that she hasn’t lost him after all, she responds to the movements he makes in the crowd and imagines that she is in his arms instead. The unlocking of her passion proves to be the key to winning the championship and, of course, a happy, harmonious life with him working for a revitalized Burnett at his dance studio.
Haines’ camerawork is superlative in the dance sequences, which form the majority of the film. She choreographs her shots precisely at the salsa club, seemingly as abandoned as the dancers, yet ending up exactly where she needs to be when Ruby and Rafael, who have been changing partners throughout the sequence, end up in each other’s arms. She does not adhere to the full-body shooting favored by dancers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but there were few times when I felt cheated, so deftly does she move between the story on the dancers’ faces and the movements of their bodies. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Joan Plowright’s dancing in the senior division competition—as studio regular Bea Johnson, she more than showed her chops during her dance lessons—but it was gratifying to see her in the spotlight anyway in an endearing duet with Chayanne. It was also gratifying to see Haines pay tribute to Gene Kelly’s classic “Singing in the Rain” dance when Rafael, caught in a field of lawn sprinklers, cavorts and splashes his feet in a puddle. The closing credits are a short story in themselves, using this normally useless time to show the richness of Ruby’s, Rafael’s, and John’s lives following their final reconciliation at the competition. The film’s editors Lisa Fruchtman and William S. Scharf deserve maximum kudos for their efforts.
Since Dance with Me came out, one film tried to fuse the white and minority audiences—Save the Last Dance (2001). An excellent film that transports a white ballet dancer into the black South Side of Chicago, where she learns to meld tradition with new styles, this could have paved a new road for dance/music films. Sadly, it was not to be. Dance with Me is a wonderful film, but it remains in the dance film ghetto, and its director and performers far from creating this kind of magic again.
If you thought Brazilian music in America started with Carmen Miranda and ended with Antonio Carlos Jobim—not far from my previous belief, though I go as current as Flora Purim and Airto—Beyond Ipanema is just the pulsing primer for you. David Byrne, Devendra Banhart, M.I.A., Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, Seu Jorge, Thievery Corporation, Bebel Gilberto, CSS, and Creed are just some of the artists of the rediscovered past and forward-moving present that Beyond Ipanema presents in the most entertaining lesson you’ll ever have. The film’s short 80-minute run time means you’ll have to pay attention, but filmmakers Barra and Dranoff have a musician’s sense of timing—they know when to add a humorous lick, a rest, a bridge to the driving beat of their survey of Brazilian music from about the 1940s to the present. I’ve retained more from this beautifully composed, highly informed film essay than anyone subject to as many golden moments as I am should.
The film begins by stating a rather startling fact—while other countries are known for exporting raw materials and material goods, Brazil’s major export is not sugar or coffee, but culture. It all started with Carmen Miranda, who is given the credit she deserves for putting Brazil on the map. This woman, who has such camp appeal today, was a huge star in Brazil before she was a hit on Broadway. In her film contracts, she stipulated that she be allowed to sing 1-3 songs, as well as have some spoken lines, in her native Portuguese. Despite the projection of caricature, Miranda, it seems, injected some of the real Brazil into the foreign consciousness.
The Tropicália movement followed in which bossa nova reigned supreme. Tropicália was much more than music, however; it was an entire cultural movement that arose in response to the political repression of the late 1950s and 1960s (cinephiles will recognize cinema novo as part of this movement). The film Black Orpheus won Cannes in 1959, exposing the world to the bossa nova sounds of Jobim and Luiz Bonfá. João Gilberto was also a driving force in the creation of bossa nova; his friendship with jazz musicians Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, who traveled to Rio on a goodwill tour, catalyzed American jazz artists into experimenting with the complex rhythms of bossa nova. In 1964, competing against the likes of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, the album Getz/Gilberto won four Grammys, including album of the year and record of the year for the song “Girl from Ipanema.” The song also launched the singing career of Gilberto’s wife Astrud. This would be the first, but certainly not the last, fusion of Brazilian music with other forms of music.
David Bryne tells of his own discovery of Brazilian music, particularly the eccentric artist Tom Zé, whose career had stalled in Brazil. Zé is the funniest of the many bemused and amusing Brazilians who are interviewed for this film. He holds up his 1975 album Estudando o Samba, the first of his albums Byrne heard, and says it saved his life. Byrne also resurrected the 1970s Brazilian psychedelic band Os Mutantes. Later in the film, Devendra Banhart says he agreed to play at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival because Os Mutantes was scheduled to appear.
DJs, attracted to the Brazilian rhythms, started to sample and mix Brazilian music, creating a new audience for a bossa nova/samba-inflected hip hop. Out of the poor favelas of Rio came favela funk. Artist M.I.A. had just wrapped an album when she heard a favela funk recording. She says she called her producer and said, “Wait, the album’s not finished!” Seu Jorge became the first black Brazilian to gain international fame with his album of David Bowie covers. Now a new Gilberto, João’s daughter Bebel, has embarked on a successful singing career. My fave rave, Flora Purim, appears on camera marvelling at the new sounds and interest in Brazilian music: “I feel like I’m 25 again!”
The wacky owner of the New York record store Tropicália in Furs, Joel Oliveira, does a brisk business with collectors. He gives a Japanese collector in his store a hard time: “Five albums? Is that all you want? You used to buy 100 at a time.” The shopper says the recession is worse in Japan than in the United States. In an aside to the camera, Oliveira confides, “He owns everything else.” Later, we watch him jump for joy when he sells a rare proto Os Mutantes album to a fan in California for $5,000. The happy new owner is shown in the closing credits.
Beyond Ipanema, called a labor of love by Dranoff, who attended the screening, went way beyond my expectations. The soundtrack is more like a sampler, with parts of songs instead of full performances, which was slightly frustrating for a neophyte like me to more contemporary sounds. But it certainly has made me curious to seek this music out, and that is what Dranoff, with his A&R hat on, was certainly driving for. I urge anyone with an interest in Brazil, its music and culture, and the wonderfully original artists who make it to make a point of catching Beyond Ipanema.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called Purple Rain. Writing a few weeks ago about 80s music videos prompted me to finally check out the whole of Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson’s debut film, an unexpected smash that made its star exponentially more famous, provoked him to create what was arguably his greatest album, and earned Warner Bros great stinking wads of cash. Indeed, Purple Rain is defined, justified, and sold by its offering a cavalcade of some of the most accomplished pop songs ever recorded. Nearly half the film’s running time is devoted to simply recording musical performances, giving Prince unfettered freedom in demonstrating his astounding athleticism and stagecraft, capturing perhaps modern pop’s greatest master of a total conceptualised musical act at his height.
As a film, it’s rather less than a Prince, but it’s also no A Flock of Seagulls. It’s surprisingly entertaining a quarter-century later; indeed, from an era of pseudo-musicals (Fame, Flashdance, Footloose), Purple Rain is possibly the most classically shaped, offering in its musical sequences a mode for its main character to express his inner self in a way he can’t otherwise. The ancient plotline of a young artist struggling against sabotaging rivals and personal demons to locate his mojo and break through, melded to a dash of autobiographical grit, works with some real intensity. Clearly under the spell of Saturday Night Fever (1977), director Magnoli fuses a carefully art-directed sense of vivid urban grit with fantastically stylised pop performing, and offers a troubled, even obnoxious hero whose skill as an artist is under the thrall of his egotism and frustration. It’s impossible to imagine Curtis Hanson’s Eminem vehicle 8 Mile (2002) without it either; Hanson’s film borrows the focused time span, the cursory love affair that results more in self-discovery than romantic bliss, the focus on familial frustration as a source of art and a retardant, and an arc that sees an acknowledged talent dip into morose decline before rising again on new inspiration.
Down on Minneapolis’ First Avenue, The Kid (the Purple One) and his band The Revolution (played by…The Revolution) are attractions at a hot nightclub. We know it’s hot because it’s filled with people with glitter make-up. The band seems to have missed their window of opportunity to ascend to stardom like other exciting local bands before them, and it’s put down to The Kid’s increasing distraction. They’re stuck as subordinate to headliners The Time, led by mincing egotist Morris (Morris Day). The opening sequences lay the essentials out with cinematic fluidity, introducing The Kid, getting dressed for his act and passing by the screaming fans at the club to perform, whilst Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a wannabe who’s just left New Orleans to seek fame and fortune (in Minneapolis?), sneaks into the club to ask for a job as a performer. The Kid kills with his set, and gets Apollonia’s juices flowing, but on his return home gets clobbered in the mouth by his father when he tries to intervene in one of his parents’ common domestic rows.
It’s a forceful moment, what with Prince, in his signature jaunty purple jacket and puffy shirt, suddenly flat on his back, brought down to earth with the rudest of jolts. It offers immediate context for The Kid’s often appalling subsequent behaviour, his distrust of romantic entanglement, contempt for relying on others, and fear of failure leading to self-sabotage. His father, Francis L (Clarence Williams III), a failed musician and composer, is consumed by raging self-loathing that finds articulation only in abusing his wife and, finally, in attempted suicide. When The Kid takes Apollonia out for a ride on his too-sexy motorcycle, he tricks her into jumping into a lake and then toys with leaving her there. Yes, he’s a real charmer, girls.
Still, Morris is worse; he has his sideman and dogsbody Jerome (Jerome Benson) shove a disagreeably shrill lover in the dumpster and plots to take advantage of the cub owner’s irritation with The Kid by creating a girl-group to take The Revolution’s place on stage. Meanwhile The Kid’s two über-lesbian band mates, Wendy and Lisa (Wendy Malvoin and Lisa Coleman), keep prodding him to listen to a track they’ve composed, but The Kid keeps putting them off delicately: “I don’t want to do your stupid music!” When Apollonia tells him that she’s going to join Morris’ girl group, The Kid clobbers her in a moment of pure rage, and later taunts her from on stage with his grim portrait of a femme fatale, “Darling Nikki.” Having successfully alienated everyone in the universe, The Kid’s day looks just about done, and then his father tries to blow his own brains out. But whaddaya know? This convinces The Kid to give up reenacting his old man’s failings. He makes peace with Apollonia, and takes to the stage to do Wendy and Lisa’s piece with his lyrics, “Purple Rain,” before slaughtering all doubt of his capacity to rock a crowd with “I Would Die for You” and “Baby I’m A Star.”
Purple Rain was conceived by Prince whilst on tour, and the original screenplay by William Blinn, a regular writer for TV’s Fame, was entitled “Dreams.” But that template was heavily rewritten before production by Magnoli, presumably to turn it into a slicker, less dramatic vehicle, and perhaps playing up Prince’s awkwardly bitchy idea of a romantic male lead, which would soon be unleashed to horrible effect in Under the Cherry Moon (1986). Take away the music and the filler bike-riding montages, and the film would run about a half-hour. Still, Purple Rain stands up with the likes of Jailhouse Rock (1956) as a superior artist-showcase drama, mostly because Magnoli’s slick visuals and quick pacing keep broad comedy and broad melodrama in an effective balance.
Max Steiner once nixed the idea for Four Wives (1939) of having a dead composer’s piece (which Steiner would have had to have written) hailed as a failure. In such a light, Prince’s willingness to let such great tracks as “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” cited in this film as evidence of his increasingly erratic talent appears pretty brave, though it’s a bit hard to swallow those assessments. Still, they work well enough as aural expressions of a man whose wits are being shredded by his anxieties and mistrust, and whilst The Kid is often a real prick, it’s all because, he’s real, dude, not some phony! The way the songs, so familiar from the album, are employed in the film is well thought out, from “I Would Die For You” spun from Francis’s aggrieved protestation, to the soul-searching of “When Doves Cry” propelling a you’re-tearing-me-apart montage of the Kid’s corrosive concerns. Legend has it that Prince concocted that unique, bass-free song, the biggest hit of his career, overnight, after Magnoli requested something to dub over the sequence.
The concept of making Purple Rain as a virtual neorealist movie, using nonprofessional actors enacting something like a version of their own lives, was not so unique for a pop movie, for it helps capture an authentic flavour, and also draws attention to its self-dramatising. Unfortunately, it also results in some awesomely bad acting. Old warhorse Williams gives the best performance, although Day, playing his villain as a simpering, comical jack-off who’s effortlessly seduced by the rhythm in the finale, comes pretty close to stealing the film. The joke, of course, is that Day and The Times were another of Prince’s projects, as was Apollonia Six, the girl group Morris supposedly starts. That had, of course, been Vanity Six before Vanity, who was to be in the film, quit it, and a replacement had to be hurriedly located. Prince plays increasingly sullen self-involvement and mounting hysteria competently, if with a pretty immobile face, so the film fittingly only forces him to emote where it counts—on stage.
One can’t really call Purple Rain a work that captures the man in all his dimensions. Despite his hilariously ornate outfits by Louis and Vaughn Marie-France, he plays things very straight, performing some songs stripped to the waist to show off his masculine physique, stowing away for the time being the androgyny that was his favourite indulgence and taunt to square audiences. Stowed alongside it is the edgier, politicised, anti-war polemic that infused his earlier albums, like Dirty Mind and 1999, and came back with Sign O’ the Times. Purple Rain is happy to be a vintage Reagan-era fantasy of success and harmony, portraying First Avenue as a multicultural wonderland when, actually, the city’s black population was by all accounts pretty small. It’s easy to make fun of some the archly onanistic imagery that’s often fit for cutting into music videos, like a love scene that looks like Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and the endless motorcycle rides. You know the Kid’s in deep pain when he stands by a lake, legs wide apart, tossing stones in the water, frowning deeply. Yeah, keep your day job, Prince baby.
Otherwise, go in without great expectations and come out with a grin on your face. l
The history of Zoetrope Studios and Francis Coppola’s ill-fated efforts to build an independent studio into a real force after the unexpected success of Apocalypse Now (1979) is often used today as one of Hollywood’s key cautionary tales—or in the words of Homer Simpson: Never try. The vibrant and entertaining One from the Heart (1981), the flavourful Hammett (1983) and the aesthetically original Rumble Fish (1983) didn’t make money, which was kind of a problem considering they really, really needed to. Coppola, desperate for cash, was forced to sell off Zoetrope’s infrastructure. He was marked with a reputation as a loose cannon by studio bosses when he took up an offer from his old Godfather consigliore Robert Evans to come and save Kid Notorious’ splashy new production. This film, inspired by a picture-book history by Jim Haskin on the glory days of New York’s one-time congress of cool, the Cotton Club, was due to begin shooting in a scant two weeks. Evans’ off-screen travails, which included the murder of one of the financers, were like something out of the movie he was trying to make.
The major problem Coppola faced was that there was no ready, workable script to commence production with. Mario Puzo had written the first version of the screenplay, but Coppola quickly hired William Kennedy, author of the much-lauded novel Ironweed, to drum up a new script to be used in rehearsals. By Kennedy’s estimate, revisions during shooting would number up to 20 times, yet the problems were never really overcome. The film was a colossal flop, further damaging Coppola’s career. But The Cotton Club is a doggedly entertaining and interesting film that well and truly earns it place in Coppola’s cannon, with its high style and historically incisive bent.
The story revolves around the conflicts three real-life gangland personages: Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), owner of the Club and the city’s rock-steady chieftain; Dutch Schultz (James Remar), the most predatory and unstable new operator; and Lucky Luciano (Joe Dallensandro), the nascent empire builder. Revolving around them are other partly disguised, historical protagonists: Bix Beiderbecke (with a dash of George Raft thrown in) reconfigured as Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere); Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll as Dixie’s brother Vincent Dwyer (Nicholas Cage); Harold and Fayard Nicholas as Sandman and Clay Williams (Gregory and Maurice Hines); Lena Horne as Lila Rose Oliver (Lonette McKee); and Bumpy Johnson as Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne, who’d later play Bumpy in virtually the same film under the title Hoodlum in 1996).
The contrast of brothers, Dixie and Vincent, Sandman and Clay, is right at home in Coppola’s oeuvre of familial love, creative partnership, and strife. Dixie, a talented cornet player and all-round charmer, catches Dutch’s eye one night at the same time both men also spy young flapper Vera Cicero (Diane Lane). Dixie escorts the boozy girl home and declines to ravish her drunken bones. Soon, both are taken in by Dutch—Vera as his mistress, Dixie as his pet musician and general dogsbody, each aware of their suddenly limited options despite standing to gain a piece of Dutch’s considerable action. Dutch is a volcanically temperamental go-getter, and when Owney, the last court of appeal in the Manhattan demimonde, attempts to force a peace on Dutch and rival Joe Flynn (John P. Ryan) at a swanky soiree, Flynn’s incessant swearing and racism drives Dutch to knife the Irish hood to death, infuriating Madden and kicking off a turf war with the Italian, Irish, and Negro gangs that Dutch means to win.
Vincent opportunistically uses his brother to get a job with Dutch, but soon enough becomes an independent gangster. He becomes infamous for a string of robberies and mob hits, one of which sees some youngsters accidentally gunned down, making Vincent persona non grata even in the gangland. The simultaneous tale of Sandman and Clay sees their tap act accepted at the Club, the most prestigious spot in town built around Negro art and artists who, farcically, can’t come in the front door. Sandman falls hard for gorgeous dancer and singer Lila Rose, but is persecuted by an apish, bullying supervisor (Ron Karabatsos) when he tries to romance her, and eventually falls out with Clay when he begins to work on making his own star rise. Madden eventually helps Dixie escape Dutch’s service and make it in Hollywood. He returns as a movie star ready to use his new status to pry Vera out of Schultz’s mitts just as Luciano is getting tired of the Dutchman’s antics and plans his elimination for the sake of general peace and Bumpy begins exerting some coloured clout to even the books in the Cotton Club.
After Apocalypse Now, Coppola’s cinema progressively became more formalist – experimenting with showy visual textures and low-key narratives, aiming for something close to a total cinematic stylisation, infused with an air of nostalgia and art-for-art’s-sake wistfulness. Apocalypse Now was utterly stylized, too, but its angry, violent engagement with a hot-button subject appealed. The new-age, old-style, inherently personal, romantic musical One from the Heart didn’t pack the same appeal despite the fact that it’s something like Coppola’s most personal masterpiece; The Cotton Club is many ways a follow-up, interweaving its melodrama with melody. The trouble is it neither gels as a work of sustained style nor as an epic melodrama: the distinct flavour of too many cooks making this broth is readily apparent.
The chief problem is one of focus, with theoretically crucial dramatic elements that never quite work; the central romance of Dixie and Vera never catches alight, their love-hate sparring more the spats of spoilt brats than destined lovers caught in the grasp of an ogre. Gere, at the height of his young, slippery charm, is fine, but Lane’s a flatly ordinary ingénue whose perfect jazz-baby face can’t disguise a lack of any projected character. Story threads that seem important, such as Sandman and Lila Rose’s romance, complicated by her desire to pass and make it in the larger showbiz world, don’t really go anywhere. Dixie hardly seems to notice or care when his rampaging brother is gunned down, without any commentary on familial fate realised as it was in the Godfather films. The subplot of Sandman and Clay is actually more vivid, but not given much time. One wonders how much coherence and substance hit the cutting room floor to get the running time down to a hair over two hours.
Somehow, however, The Cotton Club is a gift that keeps giving. It’s really about its marginalia, offering a cornucopia of images, homages and vignettes, and it can be regarded as a loose adaptation of the French classic Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), in the way it spins dramas around a performing venue, contrasts artists and gangsters as members of the demimonde, and sets up a power struggle of men over a woman who’s a general object of desire. Coppola views the racism and criminality that swirl around the Club with appropriately confrontational cynicism, but the film is more a celebration of cultural energy and awkward but vitality-inducing multiculturalism in melting pot New York. Dixie has sufficient chops as a cornet blower to be readily accepted by the black musicians he hangs out with, and eventually uses his clout as a movie star to break the Club’s strict colour barrier and sit in with the orchestra. Even the monstrous Dutch fancies himself something of a promoter of ethnic harmony. Moreover, Coppola adores and celebrates the old-school chutzpah of its musicians and dancers, leading to a finale in which the boundaries between art and life, realism and style, acting and dance, comedy and tragedy, melt away.
There’s nothing all that new about what Coppola was doing: many Warner Bros melodramas of the 30s and 40s, best typified by Casablanca (1942), sustained such a sublime interaction. Coppola pays homage to that film with the Cotton Club serving, like Rick’s Café, as a crossroads of society, using the musical acts to divide and comment upon the actions, sporting some terrific performances from the Hines brothers, McKee, and Larry Marshall’s awesome impersonation Cab Calloway. Coppola offers backstage sequences in the Club when Sandman and Clay audition, being as it is the place everyone wants to get into either as guest or performer, and very few succeed. But it’s over 40 minutes before the camera enters the Club through the front door and the panoramic spectacle of the place in full swing is offered, Coppola’s rapidly gliding crane camera roaming the space in a sequence that’s the near-equal of the similar Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas (1990). Thus the film’s most memorable sequences tend to be wondrous little throwaways, like when Sandman takes Lila Rose to a club for old dancers that results in a dance-off between the hoofers; Dixie’s mother (Gwen Verdon) casually schooling a girl in Central Station in a shuffle; Sandman and Clay reuniting through a tap routine that ends in the two halting mid-act and embracing; Bumpy’s brief soliloquy on the exigencies of survival as a black man; Diane Venora’s spot-on cameo as Gloria Swanson, telling Dixie he has It; the motor-mouthed commentary by a Hollywood boss and his Yes Man underling whilst watching Dixie’s screen test.
Best of all is the interaction between Owney and his hulking enforcer Frenchy Demange (the great Fred Gwynne), as when Frenchy smashes Owney’s watch when he thinks his friend failed to fork out enough dough to ransom him back from Vincent. Hoskins and Gwynne walk off with the film, though Remar’s weird Schultz is a worthy for this connoisseur of screen villainy, with his obvious social discomfort bubbling in all his scenes, his mouth twisting into a perpetual grimace of displeasure, his voice in moments of extreme outrage dipping into a low, troll-like croak. Around them bubbles an entirely notable cast, sporting the likes of Tom Waits (who had provided the soundtrack of One from the Heart) as the club’s gruff emcee, the amusingly cast Factory himbo Dallesandro, and future notables, like favourite nephew Cage, Lane, Fishburne, Jennifer Grey, Giancarlo Esposito, and daughter Sofia as a street waif.
Michael Jackson’s death threw me back to the popular culture through which I first came to comprehend the world: the shiny, grandiose, pop-saturated, money-flush, yet grittier atmosphere of the 1980s. My favourite song when I was six was Jackson’s “Beat It,” in alternation with The Boss’s “Born in the USA.” Such was the ubiquity of that era’s hits that it was indeed possible for kids who had neither experienced the diplomatic niceties of African-American street gangs or the dubious pleasures of being a disaffected Vietnam vet to shout along to those epic choruses without any trace of cognitive dissonance. It was a time of such ambitions and contradictions. The lingering shades of the Counterculture were reduced to jokes fit for Family Ties. Madonna could extol feminism by stripping, Jackson could happily shill for Pepsi, and both could make these look like triumphs for the subcultures that nurtured their ambitions. That epoch met its infamous Gotterdammerung when Jackson’s Black or White video gave way to a bunch of sweaty, grotty, substance-altered teenagers dancing to Nirvana in what looked like a dreamscape high school auditorium where Freddy Kruger could turn up and begin butchery. The 90s arrived with the crash of metal in the junkyard and the ring of shattering illusions.
Everything seemed larger in the 80s, and I’m convinced today that this is as much a product of the era’s affectations as it is one of nostalgia. It’s a cliché to note that cinema has long been colonised by the aesthetics of the music video, but the traffic was hardly one-way. If films like Flashdance (1982) and Footloose (1984) were units for selling music to the public and their musical sequences rendered essentially music-video-like, discarding the relationship between viewer and staged act found in most classic musicals in favor of the synchronised pulse of music and film, then the affectations of the great 80s stars reveal a yearning to borrow the glamour, class, the awe-inspiring scale of cinematic icons. Behind this lay egotism and also a genuine yearning to prove that the pop stars of the day were the rightful heirs of the movie stars of the past. Such an ambition could make sense for someone like Jackson, who had the manifold gifts of an old-school song-and-dance man: small wonder he was pals with Fred Astaire.
There was more to it, of course. The popularity of figures like Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and Springsteen reflected once-radical perspectives, but they communicated in a new argot that was inclusive rather than combative. Many of the pop music artists of the time had grown up on and internalised the ideas and theories behind pop art, and, with differing degrees of deliberation, exploited the dissonance between image and fact, identities declared and assumed. Thus, it made perfect sense for each of them to reach towards still-powerful icons of cinematic history, and try to remake themselves into cinematic heroes, albeit with hints of irony. Jackson’s beyond-popular album Thriller is often cited as the singular example of a cultural phenomenon that defined an era for just about everyone; but that now-deceased monoculture deliberately constructed an analogy between itself and a previous one, that of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As in that era and it carefully constructed mystique, this era in pop set about constructing a vision of elitist triumphalism that was actually for consumption by the masses, but instead of being artfully constructed by rich, white men, it was the province of new voices on the make.
Whether or not all of this is strictly responsible for the phenomenon of epic music videos that told substantial stories—or at the very least, employed staggering levels of money and creativity in reproducing cinematic effects—or if that was just a by-product of the video form’s swelling ambitions and crucial connection to the new industry, I can’t really say, but these white elephants were everywhere. I recall the news reports and atmosphere of held breaths before the debut of Black or White back in 1991, an ersatz-event I avoided like the plague.
But Thriller, all 14 minutes of it, is still a brilliant piece of showmanship, with John Landis in the director’s chair and Rick Baker on make-up, both men fresh off their mini-classic An American Werewolf in London (1981), and Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980), which had proven both his ability to film choreography and awareness of the intricacies of pop music. It begins as a mock-horror film set in the 1950s in which Jackson and his girlfriend (Ola Ray) are stuck in the middle of nowhere after their car runs out of gas—no, really—and then Michael warns his smitten girl that he’s not like other guys. Yeah, Mick, no kidding? The full moon sees him transmogrify gruesomely into a werewolf. Only this proves to be the movie that a theatre audience is watching on screen, everyone cringing in fright except for Jackson, who beams delightedly, munching his popcorn. His girlfriend (still Ray) clings to him and then freaks out sufficiently to flee the theatre, forcing him to follow and escort her home through the dark streets, launching into the song as his half-mocking, half-reassuring ode to the pleasures of being scared. Teens could relate: this was, after all, the great age of Saturday night nooky inspired by the latest Friday the 13th film.
The clip is uniquely clever in how it constructs a narrative to suit the unusual lyrics and extended musical structure, turning the instrumental bridge, usually death for the clip director to fill out, into the climax in which Jackson turns into a zombie who takes command of a cohort of the dead and leads them in some killer moves. The song isn’t much—a great Quincy Jones synth-bass track allied to some dumb lyrics about how your man is good to hold on to when scary movies get scary—but the clip is more than just a jokey pastiche. The nostalgic cultural continuity in linking 50s innocence and 80s knowingness mainly edits out the fractious time period in between and revels in the roots of modern youth culture. The fact that Michael alternates between cuddly nice guy and threatening ghoul, gets at the heart of the complex creature and icon Jackson was. Landis matches the song’s delight in Vincent Price’s camp contribution, in which his mock-Poe lines suggest resisting the boogie is tantamount to being un-dead, with a sequence of the undead clawing their way out of the grave that’s a brilliant recreation of classic horror imagery. (The movie theatre sports posters for Price’s House of Wax (1953) and for Landis and Baker’s first collaboration, Schlock! (1972).) Then, of course, there’s the epic piece of choreography that’s the centrepiece of the clip, with its line-dancing zombies with make-up as vivid as anything from a George Romero film, and yet whose movements are sinuous and electric. The message, that Michael Jackson can make a corpse dance, was hardly arguable at the time. In the clip and in his success, Jackson is the man single-handedly corralling America’s demons into line.
The follow-up was Martin Scorsese’s even longer, more elaborate, though less fanciful clip for Bad, in which Jackson plays a young man attempting to rise out of the ghetto, but, when push comes to shove and local thugs threaten him and his girlfriend, reveals that he’s…well, bad. The videos for Thriller and Bad sport the same essential joke—the gentle, meek Michael transforming into a weirdo capable of taming hordes of zombies and street toughs. Scorsese considered Bad a legitimate part of his oeuvre, a continuation of the same ideas expressed in New York, New York (1978), where street-level grit and fantasy coalesce in a dance number that’s more embarrassingly dated than Thriller’s—so much so that it was the target of the devastating Weird Al Yankovic parody Fat.
Thriller was followed in epic, if not equal, success by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Springsteen, like Jackson, was a figure of 1970s music reinventing himself—beefed up and wielding a synthesiser. But his song writing was still based in the same telling observations of everyday life and sense of working-class drama, and his tradition was still one of lefty populism. Springsteen’s clips were less inflated than Jackson’s, but he hired his own big guns: John Sayles for “Born in the USA” and “I’m On Fire,” and Brian De Palma for “Dancing in the Dark.” Springsteen’s bout of fitness nuttiness had given him a brawnier physique, and he matched this to a power-pop approach to his usual meaty fare of aching small-town frustration. Sayles’ video for “Born” is a dud, and, with its blue-collar mythos and final recreation of Annie Leibovitz’s worship-the-workingman’s-ass cover shot, probably added to the confusion between the song’s cynical lyrics and the shout-along chorus with some variety of Reaganite propaganda. But Sayles’ clip for “I’m On Fire” was a moody mini-classic that presents Bruce as a mechanic contending with the erotic promise of a rich blonde who’s demanding his services both for her car and herself; he finally shies away with his self-respect intact.
Prince would have shagged her brains out and then sweet-talked her daddy into giving him a record deal. But there’s the difference. Prince’s heroes, like Madonna’s and Jackson’s, were on their way somewhere. Springsteen’s were trying to cope with seeing the same face in the mirror every day. De Palma’s flashy Dancing in the Dark completely ignores the song’s dissonantly mournful lyrics and takes its cue from the slippery, bouncy music, presenting a faked concert performance, where a 20-year-old Courteney Cox gazes ardently up at Bruce until he finally plucks her out of the crowd and lets her dance on stage with him, thus fulfilling the dreams of every girl in the crowd. As with Jackson’s clips, it would seem like utter wankery without Springsteen’s self-mocking grin, the sense that it’s the most public and private of jokes for the most eminently average of rock idols.
Prince himself was a one-man multitude, and his affectations of glam first drew him to make Purple Rain (1984), an updated spin on a 50s rock flick where a slightly fictionalised self enacts his own rise from scenester to superstar, and then Under the Cherry Moon (1986), an attempt to make a pop-arty tribute to classic glamour and screwball aesthetics. Cherry Moon, though awful, betrayed, like many video clips of the 80s, the influence of Francis Coppola’s pop-arty films of the decade, One from the Heart (1981), Rumble Fish (1983), and The Cotton Club (1985), with their flashy photographic effects and deliberate artificiality.
Prince’s lack of discernable acting talent hamstrung his efforts, while Madonna was able to sustain enough illusion of talent to achieve a career. Madonna’s efforts to court the status of classic stardom was even less shy. Material Girl saw her aping Monroe whilst being pursued by Keith Carradine’s initially imperious, but finally awed and boyish filmmaker, thus netting her a rich but altogether modest guy, both affirming and undercutting the song’s crass lyrics. In Vogue, Madonna rattles off a familiar litany of stars, and underlines their meaning for her—“faces on a movie screen”—a reductive instinct on Madonna’s part, but also an honest one: for most people most of the time, the star is the point.
Her colossally expensive Express Yourself video recreated whole sets and iconic images out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), creating perhaps the most ambitious fusion of pop art and pop music. The director was David Fincher, picturing a hellish, futuristic city where Madonna’s oppressed blonde is desired by both a hunky factory worker and a sleazy magnate. The worker imagines her dancing in all her trademark lingerie-clad provocation, the boss chains her up to control her, but her symbolic black cat escapes and alerts the worker to her situation. There’s an interlude where she breaks out and cavorts in a Dietrichesque suit and blonde bob, and dances in gender-bending fashion. The encapsulated tale is oddly similar to that in “I’m on Fire,” (except it presents the bottled blonde as being as entrapped as the worker male), but also its assault on gender codes is complete in the overtly industrial-queer fetishism layered upon the regulation pop feminism.
The appeal of making music videos for directors of the caliber of Scorsese, Landis, De Palma, and Sayles, and the recording artists who hired them, was in the aura of mutual reputation, and also, particularly for Scorsese and Landis, the chance to stage sequences like those in the musicals they grew up with. The conceptual clarity and unity of space, chronology, and staging in these clips is largely at odds with the opportunistic imagery of most video clips, and, indeed, the fragmentation of later musical movies like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Chicago (2002); most directors who cut their teeth in the video clip form proved to be skilled image-makers and terrible storytellers. But an inventive talent like Fincher could expand his abilities in this short form long before taking the reins on colossally expensive Hollywood vehicles; only three years elapsed between Express Yourself and Alien 3 for Fincher. By the early 90s, the terms of reference changed in music; many cutting-edge video clips were still quoting movies, but it was more likely to be completely different fare: the surreal films of Cronenberg, Lynch, and experimental directors.
That the efforts of pop artists to live up to earlier eras of cool and fuse new music with retro class and ambitions has not entirely disappeared is confirmed by a project like Outkast’s eccentric period musical Idlewild (2006), and works of outsized multimedia ambition like Daft Punk’s anime movie Interstella 5555 (2003), made with one of Japanese animation’s masters, Leiji Matsumoto. But the age of the music video as event, and the idea of the galactic superstar, died long before Michael Jackson did.
Pioneering jazz trumpeter Miles Davis has among his many quotable quotes this one: “You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads.” Davis proved that rejecting his comfort zone was the way to forge the future of a musical form that has been given up for dead more than once.
Chet Baker, on the other hand, loved ballads and settled into them like a cat on a warm pile of towels. You couldn’t call Baker an innovator exactly, but he brought something very unique to jazz. If you can imagine Billie Holiday’s voice coming out of the bell of a trumpet, you’re in Chet Baker country. Baker, like Holiday, achieved a sad, melancholic tone in his playing; his trumpet phrasing even seems to owe a bit to her vocalization style. And sadly, like Holiday, he had the jazz musician’s disease—a heroin addiction that he never kicked—and died tragically—falling (or jumping?) out of an Amsterdam hotel window.
In 1986, just two years before his death, Baker was filmed performing at Ronnie Scott’s, London’s famous jazz club. Very ably backed by pianist Michel Grailler and bassist Riccardo del Fra, with guest performances by Van Morrison and Elvis Costello (in full 80s persona), Baker sang and played with aching beauty and perhaps not a little struggle.
The set opens with the lovely “Ellen David,” signaling the warm cool of Baker’s California jazz that will characterize most of the set. Baker, in a faux-Hawaiian print pullover and black jeans tucked into knee-high cowboy boots, sits like a rickety folding chair on an amp, pointing his horn down into a mike or pressing his craggy, Okie face against another mike to sing. I’ve always noted Baker’s breathy style, but in this performance, he seems to be gasping for air at the top of his sung and blown phrases. It is only when his lungs fully engage that he works into the right notes and carries them long after most of us would be taking a breath. This is the paradox of Baker’s style, a tightrope act that generally settles into a mellow walk on the wire with more than a tinge of anxious emotion. Listening to Baker is both relaxing and a bit harrowing; he is never someone I can half-listen to as background music.
During the opening number and the following “Just Friends,” a fast number that Baker sings and scats, the camera work is pretty bad, jumping back and forth frenetically and focusing on pretty girls wearing the fashion disasters that date this film squarely in the 80s. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that Rob Lemkin, who directed Nina Simone Live at Ronnie Scott’s two years before, must have wrested control of the production after that. The rest of the film is a textbook on how to shoot musical performances. “Shifting Down,” the third song of the set, settles in visually, tightening in on the performers, working magic with the color lighting on the stage to create relational tableaus of the musicians, and using a musician POV shot to light up the dark club with the bright yellow frock of a lovely black audience member.
The set goes a bit off the tracks when Van Morrison takes to the stage. He seems to have dropped in after a few too many at the pub down the street. Clutching a rumpled lyrics sheet, eyes clamped tightly shut, arm twitching a la Joe Cocker, Morrison delivers a version of “Send in the Clowns” that makes me wonder if he even knew how the song went. I love Van, but this was very far from his finest hour.
The set shifts back to the trio, and hits a very fine groove with traditionally rendered “If I Should Lose You” and “My Ideal,” and a funky “Love for Sale” that really shows off the talents of bassist Del Fra. The camera syncopates to the musical beat and later shoots straight up the neck of Del Fra’s double bass, showing his playing in minute detail and teaching me a lot about how such magnificent sounds are made. Indeed, Lemkin uses extreme close-ups to great effect, particularly in illustrating Baker’s reservoir of breath and sure valving. Baker’s vocals for “My Ideal” were so pain-filled; you could sense the tragedy of missed opportunities and wasted pursuits that certainly must have been a big part of Baker’s drug-scarred life.
Elvis Costello joins the trio to sing “The Very Thought of You” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” He seems to rush the first song and bends notes in a way more characteristic of his 80s punk-ska style. His tone and delivery are perfect, however, for the moving “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” blending effortlessly with Baker’s horn to tear at the heartstrings. This was easily my favorite number of the set. The film ends with “I’m a Fool to Want You.”
Short segments that have Costello rather clumsily interviewing Baker seek to shed light on Baker’s history. We learn he lived with his aunt in Oklahoma City from the age of one (a fact I haven’t been able to confirm with admittedly cursory research), a happenstance that seems to have bothered Baker. He says he visits his mother in Oklahoma once a year, but stays mainly in Europe, where jazz is appreciated. I thought he was a little hard on America, saying he had recently played Chicago for the first time in five years and lamenting the lack of jazz clubs across the country. I seem to remember at least half a dozen clubs I used to visit in the 80s to listen to jazz; while certainly not what it was in its heyday, jazz wasn’t exactly dead in my city. It’s more likely that Baker was not getting gigs because of his out-of-control heroin habit. He also reveals that he lost his front teeth in a beating in San Francisco and had to learn how to play the horn while wearing dentures—a truly amazing feat. It has been convincingly argued, however, that he actually lost his teeth due to his heroin use. His final comment, about trying to write his autobiography, but giving it up because “nobody would believe it anyway,” actually sounds about right. (The unfinished manuscript was published after his death.)
I don’t think we’ll ever know the real story about Chet Baker, but for me, that doesn’t matter. I’ve been a fan of his for many years, and all I need to know about him can be found in his music. Chet Baker Live at Ronnie Scott’s, formerly available only in VHS, was remastered for DVD and reissued in 2002 with a few DVD extras and the dubious box claim that this was “The Legendary Jazz Trumpeter’s Last Performance!” I’m happy to say that this accomplished film provides fans with a worthy record of an imperfect, yet impassioned performance by an unabashed jazz balladeer. See for yourself:
Last night, in an act of pure kismet, I went in search of something to watch that wasn’t a feature film. I didn’t want to be bothered watching performances, analyzing dialogue, watching camerawork or set design. I just wanted to float through something that wasn’t so demanding on my analytical skills. Rather quickly, I laid hands on an old Facets video, a documentary about the great 20th century German conductor Otto Klemperer. The combination of cultural history and glorious music seemed ideal, so that’s what I watched.
As it happens, today is the anniversary of Klemperer’s birth, a fact I learned from Carl Grapentine, the morning host for WFMT, Chicago’s classical radio station. Klemperer (father of “Colonel Klink,” Werner Klemperer) would have been 124 years old, a number that shocked Grapentine as being too old for a conductor he witnessed in action. Klemperer lived to be 88, so just about any older adult who listened to classical music stood a chance of being able to see him conduct.
Klemperer’s long and tumultuous life threw a bit of a wrench into my plans for a leisurely evening in front of the TV screen. You just don’t loll around when a man talks about meeting Mahler and having him listening over his shoulder and correcting a score note written many years ago, discussing Jewish and Christian concepts of the divine with Sigmund Freud, or hanging out in Los Angeles with fellow refugees Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schönberg, Bruno Walter, and Albert Einstein. I had to stop surfing around on my laptop and really pay attention—and I’m very glad I did.
The documentary begins with Klemperer conducting under the opening credits and segues to the aged maestro rehearsing an orchestra. We will return to his rehearsals throughout this mainly chronological film, watching Klemperer’s seated form exert minimal movement to guide the musicians, sing measures of the score to show where he wants emphases to be, and scold one unfortunate violinist for not playing as instructed.
The story begins in Breslau, where Klemperer was born and given his first musical lessons by his mother, a talented pianist. He began his musical studies in Frankfort, though he wanted to become an actor. It was only when a theatrical production he was involved with lost its conductor that he was quickly seated at the podium. This, he said, thrilled him immensely—he just a music student and conducting an orchestra! This moment, I imagine, sealed his fate.
He went on to Berlin to continue his music education at the Stern Conservatory, where Hans Pfizner, a musician in the Romantic tradition, was his instructor. He mentions sitting in a park one day and watching a man walk slowly past. The man had a slight limp, and Klemperer realized that he was Gustav Mahler. I’m not certain how it happened, perhaps through Pfizner, but Klemperer and Mahler became acquainted. It was during this acquaintance that he received the score correction I mentioned earlier. Klemperer became enamored of modern music through Mahler’s influence, and it was Mahler whose recommendations secured Klemperer positions at the German National Theatre in Prague and in Hamburg. He continued to knock around Germany in the 1910s, accepting positions in Strausborg, Cologne, and Wiesbaden.
He conducted quite a bit of opera, thereby putting his actory ambitions into service in working with the production designers and singers on staging. His harsh musical opening and stark staging of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman borrowed Berthold Brecht’s technique of epic alienation, angering conservative audiences, particularly the fledgling Nazis who favored heroic/romantic stagings of Wagner. His Fidelio removed the pleasantries of the traditional staging, putting the chorus of political prisoners in this, Beethoven’s only opera, in chains rather than allowing them to walk freely. Photos and music from these productions accompany this portion of the documentary’s exposition.
Igor Stravinsky, Eduard Dülberg, and Otto Klemperer at the world premiere of Oedipus Rex at the Kroll Opera, February 25, 1928
In 1927, Klemperer made his biggest mark, as music director of The Kroll Opera in Berlin, championing the modernist works of Mahler, Schönberg, Paul Hindemith, Stravinsky, and even Kurt Weill. The documentary gives us an excerpt of Klemperer conducting Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Suite from The Threepenny Opera).
Throughout this cinematic resume, Klemperer continuously comments on the social conditions around him, particularly the rise of the Nazis and the growing threat to the Jews of Europe. He remarks that after World War I, when Germans saw their troops come home spiffy and bedecked with flowers, it was hard to imagine they had actually lost the war; the blame was, “of course,” placed on the Jewish bankers. Klemperer had contact with some of the great thinkers of his day, including Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, whose musical content for The Spirit of Utopia (1918) he reviewed. When Klemperer, a Jew, learned that the Nazis had arrested a Jewish professor of his acquaintance (“Where is he?” “Nobody knows.”), he determined to leave Germany. He journeyed to Austria, Switzerland, France, and was invited to Los Angeles by a wealthy patron of the conductorless Los Angeles Philharmonic. In the film, he makes fun of the fat-cat society matrons who were his new masters; accounts of how he turned the ragtag musicians into a world-class orchestra show that the scorn was not mutual. And he agonized that all he could do was sit in exile while the Jews of Europe were being exterminated.
In 1939, a brain tumor left him semi-paralyzed and virtually unemployable. His career resurrection came as the chief conductor of the Budapest Opera (1947-1950). In 1959, he was appointed “principal conductor for life” of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra by its founder, Walter Legge. When Legge decided to disband the orchestra, it reorganized as the New Philharmonia under musician management, with Klemperer at its head.
Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, and Wilhelm Furtwängler
Klemperer was devoted to the composer above all things and lived the philosophy of rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; he did something unheard of among penny-pinching opera companies—he rehearsed once with the orchestra alone and then with orchestra and singers. He studied scores as religious scholars study the Bible or the Koran; when he couldn’t get work conducting, this became his overriding preoccupation. Unlike the intensity of Toscanini or the romanticism of Furtwängler, he conducted without adding his own flourishes, and many of his recordings are considered authoritative—the “composer’s cut” if we put it in cinematic terms. His tempos tended to be slow (though I fancy nobody conducted a slower Mahler than Leonard Bernstein) and exact, which didn’t always please either his musicians or his audiences. Yet it’s very clear from this documentary that he was an emotional person who felt each note, and the excerpts to which we are treated sound just fine to my admittedly untrained ear. Among the musical excerpts in the film are the New Philharmonia playing Beethoven’s King Stephen Overture, Mozart’s Serenade KV 575, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 [Resurrection]; the Amsterdam Concertgebouw playing Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht; footage of the Berlin Komische Oper’s production of Bizet’s Carmen; and the Berlin Staatskapelle performing the overture to Offenbach’s opera La Belle Hélène, as well as “Salome’s Dance” from Richard Strauss’s opera Salome.
Many of his professional collaborators were interviewed for this film, including conductor Paul Dessau, who worked under Klemperer at the Cologne Opera; Hans Curjel, who was Klemperer’s dramaturg at the Berlin Kroll Opera; Natalia Saz, a Russian theatre and opera director, whose good-hearted indifference to the male chauvinism of Western opera houses is delightfully expressed; and composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, who was flabbergasted that Klemperer wanted to watch him rehearse. Moje Forbach, the soprano who sang Senta in Klemperer’s production of The Flying Dutchman at the Kroll Opera gave insight into Klemperer’s matter-of-fact stage directions: “You will go here and then you will move here.” It was clear she was enchanted with Klemperer, testament perhaps to his reputation as a womanizer, a reputation that is not even alluded to here. Instead, we get the adoring reminiscences of his daughter Lotte, who also pays tribute to her mother, mezzo-soprano Johanna Klemperer. All agreed on Klemperer’s imposing height.
I commend Bregstein for digging up footage of some of Klemperer’s less accessible works, and think the use of photos interspersed with short talking-head interviews and voiceovers moved well. The sheer breadth of Klemperer’s life and career poses a challenge to anyone who wants to recount them, yet I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the material Bregstein presented. I think the documentary should have given some background on his recordings—one is left with the impression that when Klemperer couldn’t conduct, he wasn’t doing anything.
It may be hard to take in how revolutionary Klemperer really was in his time—shattering the Romantic movement with a headlong rush into modernism. But I know firsthand how difficult and contentious progress can be, especially in the classical music world. At a performance of Wagner’s (again!) Tannhäuser, I actually witnessed people booing, throwing programs, storming loudly out of the opera house. Why? Maverick director Peter Sellars had dared to stage it in modern dress as the story of disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. No play, film, or popular music concert I’ve witnessed has ever aroused such passions on a purely artistic basis. l
It seems the older many of us get, the more we want to understand our own past. Most older people have become orphans, and like young orphans or adopted children, have to follow a trail of crumbs, searching out the rapidly vanishing family and friends of family to discover those hidden moments that might make the remainder of life more coherent and settled. Many Europeans who were children around World War II suffered cataclysmic dislocations in their everyday lives. Jan Bosdriesz, the Dutch director of Black Eyes, was born in 1941. His quest to discover something about his father led him throughout Europe and into lives he never expected to encounter.
The film opens with a slow, close-up pan of a shelf in Bosdriesz’s flat in Amsterdam. On the shelf are a variety of objects Bosdriesz collected in his travels and from his relatives—a flat iron, a reed dildo some Thai workers gave him when he didn’t want to visit a brothel, some woven sandals from South America. Bosdriesz muses that some of these objects will have utility after his death, but that most are meaningful only because of his associations with them; they likely will end up in the rubbish when he is no longer around to invest them with worth. At the center of his collection are some 78s his father listened to frequently, with enthusiasm. The apple of his father’s listening ear was Pyotr Leshchenko, a singer of songs that spanned the range of human emotions. Bosdriesz decided to pursue Leshchenko’s life and career as a way to understand his father better.
Leshchenko was born in 1898 in Ukraine, a citizen of the Russian Empire. During World War I, his parents moved the family to Kishinev, now part of Moldavia. When borders changed, as they do with confusing frequency in Europe, Leshchenko found himself a citizen of Romania. After a short career as a dancer, he started his singing career. His passionate style in interpreting songs of love and loss, particularly the songs of Latvian composer Oskar Strok, brought him great success. But when World War II ended, Leshchenko’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. His songs were considered counterrevolutionary in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and his recordings were banned. Nonetheless, under the sponsorship of a powerful Russian fan, he spent a triumphal few years in Odessa, where he had many fans for his Russian-language singing, and later returned to Romania, a country that had backed Germany and that looked at Russians with suspicion. In 1951, he was arrested and disappeared into the Romanian gulag, where his story abruptly ends.
Bosdriesz travels through Eastern Europe trying to trace anyone who knew Leshchenko and what might have happened to him. He meets a small woman with a lovely, smiling face who married Leshchenko’s son Igor. She never met her father-in-law and, in fact, divorced Igor only a few years into their marriage. Yet, like Bosdriesz, she is looking back and feeling a longing to know this man whose pictures show her what emotion he must have had. She is touched by her familial closeness to him and how she imagines he might have been. “I’m 83,” she says. “I’ll meet him soon.” Perhaps she has listened to his interpretation of Rezső Seress’ “Gloomy Sunday,” which has the lyric: “Little white flowers will never awaken you, Not where the dark coach of sorrow has taken you, Angels have no thought of ever returning you, Would they be angry if I thought of joining you.”
Another person Bosdriesz interviews is Alla Bayanova, a 93-year-old singer who worked with Leshchenko. Unfortunately, the diva’s memory is as small as her voice is still lovely. Her helper, Natasha, tries to coax Ms. Bayanova’s first encounter with Leshchenko out of her, but that time has been wiped clean. In frustration, she twice breaks into song—truly the most articulate she can be until she pulls out a few photographs, one of which shows Leshchenko and his gorgeous second wife Vera surrounded by preening Russian soldiers. Vera and Pyotr were the “It” couple of Odessa, and now we can see why.
Another interviewee shows how Leshchenko’s banned records made their way to the admiring Russian audiences of Odessa and elsewhere. He pulls out a stack of disks made out of X-ray film with the tracks of Leshchenko’s songs etched into them. Bosdriesz places the disk of “Black Eyes” on a turntable, the image of ribs and a sternum spinning as Leshchenko’s voice rings out plaintively.
Bosdriesz’s journey of discovery leads him back to The Netherlands, where he tries to unravel the mystery of his mother’s first marriage to Jan Bosdriesz Sr., who died of typhoid in a work camp when Bosdriesz Jr. was only 15 months old. He interviews his sisters; looks at his mother’s journals; reads Bosdriesz Sr.’s poetry from prison, which his mother had copied meticulously into notebooks from letters he sent; and interviews people who had knowledge of the pacifist schoolteacher’s years in different Nazi camps. The father he never knew was an idealist, refusing to free himself with a couple of white lies.
Black Eyes is an odd document. It comes alive whenever Leshchenko and his music are in the forefront. Unfortunately, because his story after his arrest is unknown, the thread of that narrative goes nowhere, though it’s hard to care as long as Bosdriesz plies us with photos and music. What is more problematic is Bosdriesz’s search for his own meaning. We learn a lot about his namesake father, who apparently was not his biological father, but almost nothing about the man he calls his real father. Does the story of his mother’s first husband really shed light on his own history? I didn’t see the connection. In addition, Bosdriesz and Leshchenko’s stories are woven together without much skill or logic, leaving me confused for a lot of the film’s running time.
What Bosdriesz lacks in narrative force, he makes up for in visual intelligence. He juxtaposes images flawlessly, for example, zeroing in on a Russian officer listening with conviction and tear-filled eyes to the music and lyrics at a Russian Leshchenko festival—the perfect picture of the Russian spirit that helps us understand the deep connection Leshchenko made with the Russian people. He films a number of elderly women, and I simply could not get over how serenely beautiful and alive they were, the most stunning elderly women I’ve ever seen on screen. One of them is shown dancing like a young girl in love; it’s breathtaking to me. Images of Lenin, of drapes flapping in the wind, of shrouded cityscapes and abandoned work camps reveal Bosdriesz’s perfect eye and deep feeling. Whenever I felt particularly lost, I retreated into his wordless world and found coherence.
The film is available on DVD. I encourage people with a love of history, beauty, and music to experience this small treasure from a little-known corner of documentary cinema.
The trailer I had has been pulled from the Internet. You can view a short clip here (Dutch narration, no subtitles).
Victor Frankl’s famous post-Holocaust book Man’s Search for Meaning poses the question of how a human being who has had everything taken away approaches the project of life anew without giving in to despair or craven indifference. This philosophical dilemma is one that virtually all people will face at one time or another. For renowned jazz guitarist Pat Martino, the dilemma came after emergency brain surgery that saved his life but wiped out all memory of his previous life, including his knowledge of how to play the guitar.
Director Ian Knox, infatuated with the personal enigma and music of Pat Martino after hearing him live for the first time at Ronnie Scott’s in London, teamed with Paul Broks, a British neuropsychologist and author who had written about Martino, to create a document not only about a music legend but also about the very nature of identity itself.
Martino Unstrung introduces us to the slim, silver-haired Martino, built as elegantly as a classic Gibson guitar, as he goes through a very ordinary routine of breakfast at a local diner in his hometown of Philadelphia. He moved back with his parents to recuperate after surgeons in Los Angeles removed a massive tumor in his cerebral cortex that had been growing for at least two decades. Martino, seemingly gentlemanly and unassuming, is a well-liked patron whose notoriety in the jazz world was unknown to the diner regulars. One of the owners talks about how he nervously discussed a Japanese woman he had met on a trip and his plans to ask her to marry him on his next trip. “We didn’t know he was famous,” she said.
Knox, with Broks as his narrator, takes us through Martino’s life and rise in the music world. His Italian father told him never to touch the guitar underneath the bed, using reverse psychology to get Pat interested. He began playing professionally when still a teenager. Lloyd Price, whom Knox interviews, said he heard Martino once and signed him to his big band. After that, a move to New York put Martino together with some of the greats of jazz, including Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Bobby Hutcherson, and Woody Herman. Other friends and admirers interviewed include Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, and Joe Pesci.
Interviews with Fred Simeone, Martino’s neurosurgeon, help us understand the nature of Martino’s malady, arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which Simeone describes vividly as a snake’s nest of blood vessels that feed off the blood of the surrounding brain tissue. Martino said he experienced seizures as young as 10 years of age. Later manifestations were described by Geri Taber, his first wife. He experienced explosive rages, behaved erratically, and drank excessively, alienating those who loved him and leading Taber to consent to shock treatments for him, something she says is the biggest regret of her life.
After Martino’s operation, his memory was almost entirely wiped out. He didn’t know his parents when he moved in with them. He saw photos of himself with friends and relatives, and it was like looking at his doppelganger. His father played his many recordings to him, telling him who he was in the world. All Pat could feel was alienated. His motor skills and musicality had not been injured during surgery, but he had to relearn the guitar. Virtually everyone says his playing is different now, more cerebral and cool. No longer, it seems, does he play so hard he breaks strings. Some like it better; some don’t.
I’ve been interested in the brain since I was a tween, and am a big fan of Oliver Sacks’ books. His A Leg to Stand On talks about his own ironic alienation from his leg after an injury “left him with the uncanny feeling of being ‘legless,’ and rais(ing) profound questions of the physical basis of identity.” For me, Broks picked up right where Sacks left off in exploring the fragility of identity. His observation that Martino lost a part of the brain that regulates emotion raises profound questions about whether he “feels” the music anymore. Neuropsychological tests Broks and his colleague run on Martino don’t answer the question, but they do find that other parts of Martino’s brain had been compensating for many of his early deficits when his AVM was in its formative stages. It would be easy to suppose his emotional centers could make a similar shift, but it may not be as simple as all that.
As a film, Martino Unstrung was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I’m not a big fan of British documentaries, which seem static and seek to dramatize the basic talking-head format in ineffective ways, like placing Dr. Simeone in a room full of light boxes and X-rays. The film often felt flat, as Knox seemed almost deliberately to portray the ascetic-looking Martino as a Martian, for example, shooting his face through a window reflecting the gaudy humanity of Times Square. I wanted more music, which, thankfully came faster and more dense as the film progressed and saved what had been a bit of a snore for me.
I’m a jazz fan, but Pat Martino, a musician’s musician, was barely a blip on my screen. Now, I’m seeking his before/after music and pondering what his story tells us about humanity. This is an interesting film worth your time. l
Interviews with Ian Knox and Pat Martino by Victor L. Schermer in All About Jazz can be found here. Pat Martino’s website is here.
I always like it when awarding organizations get it right, and when the Big Three of the Western film world—AMPAS, the Golden Globes, and the Cannes Film Festival—named Black Orpheus Best Foreign-Language Film, Best Foreign Film, and Palme d’Or winner, respectively, they most certainly got it right. This Brazilian/French/Italian coproduction reimagines the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a doomed romance between descendents of freed black slaves in the hillside favelas (shantytowns) surrounding Rio de Janeiro during Carnival. In doing so, Black Orpheus connects this pre-Christian story with the Christian Passion in a place watched over by a giant figure of Christ.
The title card shows a Greek frieze from antiquity into which the figures of Orpheus and Eurydice have been chiseled. Then we are plunged immediately into a favela readying itself for Carnival. Musicians in bright, satin costumes create a pulsing African beat to which the townspeople sway, even women carrying large bundles of laundry on their heads. Soon the music gives way to the quieter rhythms of village life, scored by Luiz Bonfá—specifically, “Manhã de Carnaval,” which becomes the running theme song of the movie. We meet a smiling Serafina (Léa Garcia) watching two boys, Benedito (Jorge dos Santos) and Zeca (Aurino Cassiano), flying kites. The arrival of a streetcar pulls us into the plot.
Streetcar driver Orfeo (Breno Mello) conveys passengers, including the young and beautiful Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), into town. Orfeo is a natural flirt who has left a string of lovers all over town, though one of them, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), has pushed him aggressively into a promise of marriage. Filmic love triangles are plentiful, but one member of the triangle usually knows at some level that a grand passion is in the offing. I am reminded of Gene Kelly as he pursues a reluctant, then compliant Leslie Caron in An American in Paris. Black Orpheus confounds this formula by having Orfeo flirt with and then dismiss Eurydice as too young; for her part, Eurydice is single-minded in her desire to get to cousin Serafina’s home, and Orfeo is an unwelcome roadblock.
Orfeo returns to his home, which adjoins Serafina’s, and his menagerie of animals—a reference to Orpheus’ ability to charm all the beasts with his music. He has gotten his precious guitar out of hock in time to play at the Carnival festivities. Zeca brings Benedito to Orfeo, claiming that Orfeo makes the sun rise with his songs. Benedito asks Orfeo what songs he plays—are they religious? No, says Orfeo, “I just make them up.” He then starts to improvise a song, the aforementioned “Manhã de Carnaval,” improvising lyrics about the rising of the sun and love. Eurydice hears the song, and in keeping with the Orpheus myth, is enchanted. When Orfeo discovers that she is now his next-door neighbor, he tries to seduce her. She runs. When he catches up with her, she is crying. “I was attracted to the song,” she says. Orfeo—a handsome and virile man—is not accustomed to women appreciating his creative inner life, and his heart is touched.
Sadly, Eurydice is a troubled young woman. She has run away from home; both she and Serafina know that if her guardian finds her, he could kill her. Eurydice has an additional worry right where she is. Previously, when Mira and Orfeo went to the marriage license bureau, a clerk, jokingly referring to the myth, says “Orfeo loves Eurydice,” without knowing there really is a Eurydice in town. Mira has noticed Orfeo’s transfer of affection and vows to kill Eurydice.
The vital heart of Afro-Brazilian culture is on display in this sweetly intense film. There isn’t a musical note or drumbeat struck that there isn’t also a swaying or dancing group of people responding. Although young, Eurydice comfortably allows the music to reach inside her. She and Orfeo dance with pleasure in a scene that communicates love of life rather than merely sexual or romantic intrigue. We’ve seen love dances before—again, I’m reminded of An American in Paris—but in Western films, the dances always tell the story. In this film, the dance is part of the story, part of a life in which both women and men find pleasure and expression. There’s no need for a Gene Kelly trying to persuade men that dancing is macho. How foolish this would seem to these Brazilians.
The film reaches a peak during the actual Carnival parade. Orfeo, dressed in gold like a Greek god, is the major domo of his town’s dance crewe whose theme is the rising sun and who dress rather ironically in colonial garb. During this celebration that ushers in a period of sacrifice leading up to Easter, Orfeo and Eurydice will enact another such sacrifice. Eurydice has seen the figure of a man dressed as Death (Ademar Da Silva) before the parade; frightened, she runs to Orfeo, who promises to protect her always. During the parade, Eurydice has taken Serafina’s place; veiled, she can dance with Orfeo without Mira being the wiser.
Unfortunately, Serafina and her dumb boyfriend can’t resist coming to the parade, and Serafina calls to Eurydice. Both Mira and Death, who has been watching Eurydice, take after her, but only Death manages to separate her from the crowd. In the empty trolley depot, they play a truly frightening cat-and-mouse game, moving in the troughs under the tracks and above the ground on the trestle structures, Death glowing red with menace. Orfeo reaches them; Eurydice yells his name. He throws a switch for more light, but only succeeds in electrocuting his beloved.
The descent of Orpheus into Hell is handled in a truly wonderful way here. An elderly streetcar conductor named Hermes (the messenger) takes Orfeo to the Bureau of Missing Persons (guarded, of course, by a dog named Cerebus), a building empty save for a janitor sweeping up miles of paper recording missing persons who are never found. Again, this seems a subtle reference to the Sacrifice of the Cross by which all humanity is saved. However, Orfeo seeks Eurydice in a pre-Christian ceremony in which spirits possess the singers and dancers. At Hermes’ urging, Orfeo joins in the singing, and Eurydice’s voice comes to him. He wants to see her, but she warns him not to turn around to view the source of the voice, or he will lose her forever. Impetuous, he disobeys her and is told by the old woman whom Eurydice has used as a vessel that she is lost to him forever.
Orfeo insists on seeing Eurydice, and in a beautifully shot and symbolic scene, descends a spiral staircase to the morgue. In an unnecessarily comic scene involving a morgue worker with a cold, he finds Eurydice, claims her body, and lets her “lead” him wherever she will. He walks with her body up a bluff, thanking Eurydice for taking him on a beautiful path surrounded by flowers. He will be met on this path by a furious Mira, who will decide his fate. The tragedy played out, life renews itself as Benedicto, Zeca, and a very young girl dance to Bonfá ‘s “Samba de Orfeo” and wait for the sun to rise.
The fabric of one corner of Brazilian life is on full display in Black Orpheus, including actual footage of Carnival that seems to have been shot by Camus. Camus has a spectacular eye for the majesty that is Rio, utilizing the natural beauty to accent and lend power to this timeless love story. At the same time, comic interludes of varying degrees of success reminded me of Shakespeare’s construction of tragedies. Music, both primitive and contemporary, fill this film; besides Bonfá, Antonio Carlos Jobim contributed music, including the now classic “A Felicidade.”
Finally, we have the sensitive lovers themselves. Breno Mello was a soccer star appearing in his first film; while he and the rest of the nonprofessional cast are sometimes awkward, Mello’s heartbreak over the loss of Eurydice is deeply touching. Marpessa Dawn, an American dancer with acting experience, is the shining light of this film. She manages to be a real person despite the whole weight of cinematic love stories pressing in on her. In a rather touching, though coincidental coda to this film, Mello died this past July, and Dawn followed only six weeks later.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hubby was friends with Marpessa when they both lived in Denver. He said she had a serenity and confidence that drew people to her. He did not know she starred in Black Orpheus, and had never seen it. One week, it was playing at the Ogden, and Marpessa told him about it and agreed to meet him for the screening. The house was packed, and the hubby couldn’t find her. Finally, in the dark, he called, “Marpessa, are you there?” A disembodied voice called back, “I’m here.” When he told me this story, I immediately said, “You were Orpheus!”
I know that everyone’s talking about the new Coen Brothers’ film Burn After Reading. I’ve kind of been ignoring the Coens for the past seven or eight years, so if that makes me a pariah of a movie buff in your eyes, go somewhere else. I’ve gotten pretty tired of their facile take on comic and serious stories alike. Their send-up of hillbillies, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, isn’t much different, but its one overwhelmingly redeeming quality is its soundtrack. I was listening to the soundtrack on my iPod this morning and remembering a review of it I did back in 2000. I’m not likely to review a Coen film on this site (though Rod has and maybe will again), so consider this my review of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
In 1941, a highly successful film director named John L. Sullivan tired of making meaningless popular hit after hit. Longing to make a film of substance, he set off on an odyssey to discover and embrace the REAL America for a film with the working title of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Unfortunately, the real America was a bit more than Sullivan could handle.
Sixty years later, film makers Joel and Ethan Coen picked up where the fictional Sullivan of Preston Sturges’ classic comedy Sullivan’s Travels left off. Not only did they maketheir own version of a screwball comedy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but they also found the real America in the glorious music—and musicians—they chose to inhabit their film.
The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack is arguably the best of 2000. It is also the film’s real star, wrapping the riotous whimsy of the story (very loosely based on Homer’s The Odyssey) in the soulful, straightforward music of rural America. Indeed, the music came before the O Brother script and influenced its development.
The soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett is perhaps best known for playing with Bob Dylan and producing albums by such rockers as Elvis Costello and the Counting Crows. But he began his musical life as a blues musician and has produced a number of country albums, including Revival for Gillian Welch, who performs on the soundtrack. Burnett has chosen a stellar line-up of traditional folk, country, blues, and bluegrass music, recording new tracks of established standards in the “old-timey” manner and, importantly, reviving historical recordings.
The film opens with a chain gang (which includes the travellers we follow throughout the film) singing a traditional work song, “Po Lazarus.” This is one of the remarkable historical recordings Burnett has chosen, and to great effect. The album credits the performers as James Carter and The Prisoners, but this is no variety act. The prisoners were real members of a chain gang led by Carter, most likely another prisoner. They were recorded in 1959 by renowned folk music collector Alan Lomax for the Archive of American Folk Song collection of the Library of Congress as they chopped wood at the Mississippi State Prison in Lambert. “Po Lazarus” is the most direct link on the album to the African music traditions black slaves brought to America with them, from the participatory nature of the song to the practice of praising in song great heroes’ exploits.
The traditional song “Down to the River to Pray,” which the escaped travelers hear as they hide in a forest, gets a soulful interpretation from one of today’s biggest country music stars, Alison Krauss, the youngest person ever to be asked to join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry, the Carnegie Hall of American country music. Krauss is backed reliably by members of the First Baptist Church of White House, Tennessee, and country vocalists Norman Blake, Dub Cornett, Porter McLister, David Rawlings, Tim O’Brien, Maura O’Connell, Pat Enright, Sam Phillips, and Gillian Welch.
Krauss, Welch, and country/folk diva Emmylou Harris team up to perform the only new song on the album, sung in the film by three river nymphs to tempt the erstwhile travellers. Rather than lure the men to their deaths, as the sirens did in The Odyssey, these treacherous women lull them to sleep with the rhythmic “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby,” based on a traditional African-American lullaby and accompanied by the comic/hypnotic sounds of a musician plying his bow against a metal saw.
As the travelers enjoy their freedom from the chain gang, Krauss and Welch vocalize their exhilaration with the Albert E. Brumley folk hymn, “I’ll Fly Away,” accompanied on mandolin and guitar by Mike Compton and Chris Sharp. Characteristic of many hymns popular during the 1930s, the period in which the film is set, “I’ll Fly Away” celebrates the joy that will come only after death, in sharp contrast with the misery many rural Americans suffered on a daily basis during the Great Depression.
A fateful encounter of the travelers is with Tommy Johnson, a black musician who claims to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for extraordinary musical ability. In many accounts of this scene, Tommy Johnson is considered to be a fictional version of Robert Johnson, one of the most famous and gifted blues musicians America has produced and one who claimed a similar encounter with the devil.
In fact, Tommy Johnson, played ably in the film and on the soundtrack (“Hard Times Killing Floor Blues”) by blues musician Chris Thomas King, was an actual bluesman who was a contemporary of Robert Johnson. It is said that he told Robert Johnson about his encounter with the devil and suggested he try the same approach. It is fitting that in the process of rehabilitating old-timey music for modern audiences, the Coens and T-Bone Burnett would similarly resurrect the name and reputation of the first sinner at the crossroads.
Tommy and the travelers team up on a record that becomes a break-out hit in the film and is the centerpiece tune of the film, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The first rendition of the song has Dan Tyminski pitching in for actor George Clooney, who, unhappily, did not inherit the singing talent of his aunt, Rosemary Clooney. Tyminski, one of the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys, is a member of Union Station, Alison Krauss’ band. The other Soggy Bottom Boys on this track are Harley Allen and Pat Enright.
“Man of Constant Sorrow” is closely associated with Ralph Stanley, one of the living legends of old-time bluegrass music. Stanley and his late brother Carter, along with their band The Clinch Mountain Boys, were some of the greatest practitioners of what they called “mountain music.” The Stanley Brothers are represented on the O Brother soundtrack with their 1955 recording of “Angel Band.”
Ralph Stanley takes a solo turn in the most powerful, harrowing track of the album, an a capella wail of uncertain origin, “O Death.” This song comes as the shadow of death falls across Tommy Johnson and communicates, as few songs ever have, the bone-chilling horror of dying.
Surprisingly, a song usually thought of as upbeat, “You Are My Sunshine,” becomes an acutely sad lament in the hands of bluegrass veteran Norman Blake. Other surprises on the soundtrack include actor Tim Blake Nelson’s pleasant imitation of the first “commercial” country performer, Jimmy Rodgers. Nelson hams through the Rodgers tune “In the Jailhouse Now”, backed by a much larger gathering of Soggy Bottom Boys. Rodgers’ signature yodel is provided by Pat Enright. A personal favorite of mine is the young Peasall sisters’ sincere performance of “In the Highway,” a song by Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family country music dynasty. Finally, singing cowboy Harry “Mac” McClintock is given a new airing with his 1926 recording of his own song “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Other delights abound on this thoroughly enjoyable, heartfelt celebration of old-timey American music. O Brother, what a wonderful soundtrack. l
It’s not often that a musician becomes a legend in both country and jazz genres, but Hank Garland was no ordinary musician. A South Carolina native, Garland went to Nashville to earn his fortune. He became a valued session man who played with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and others. By hanging out in blues joints, he became familiar with the roots of jazz. His successful tours of big northern cities netted him his beautiful wife Evelyn and a reputation as a jazz guitarist. A horrific car crash damaged his brain and robbed him of his ability to play. Eventually, he taught himself to play again and came back to play briefly near the end of his life. This is a life that has been long overdue for a biopic. Now we have one—Crazy, which won the Best Feature at the Big Island Film Festival.
Unlike some biopics that span many years of a person’s life, Bieber chooses judiciously from the momentous meetings and milestones of Garland’s life. Beginning with Garland’s first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, Garland (Waylon Payne) gets some advice from Hank Williams, Sr. (Steve Vai): “Start with a fast one. That always gets the audience going.” Hank’s fluid guitar picking instantly attracts a distracted audience, and he’s on his way.
His career in Nashville as a session man and ladies man is going well, and he befriends a number of musicians, including Billy Byrd (Scott Michael Campbell). However, his inability to get credit—and pay—as a player and a songwriter frustrates him and begins a long enmity with record executive Ryan Bradford (David Conrad). He decides to go on tour in the north. He meets Evelyn (Ali Larter), who quickly beds and bewitches him. Evelyn comes to visit Hank in Nashville a couple of months later, and they are soon married. However, Hank’s growing success—a regular on The Eddie Arnold Show, on-call musician for Elvis, jazz stints in New York—makes Evelyn feel increasingly isolated. She has sex with Bradford, Hank receives the pictures, and he violently confronts Bradford. Evelyn goes to Chicago with their young daughter, then calls Hank to come pick her up. On the road, another car—presumably sent by Bradford—rams Hank’s car repeatedly and sends him down a ravine, crippling and nearly killing him. His slow recovery in Florida leads to the denouement on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry legends tribute, where he plays his signature song “Sugarfoot Rag”.
There are many great moments in this film. For example, during Hank’s first appearance on stage, he notices that his pick guard reflects light into the audience. He uses the beam to choose his “date” for the evening. When he uses the trick on Evelyn and goes up to her after his set, she asks him if that always works on the girls back home. Nonetheless, she chooses him because of the light he projects from within to warm her empty life. In an inevitable scene in Hank’s hospital room, she tells him about this hope and then says she learned too late that the beam only shines when he plays, “and now you can’t even do that.”
I felt sympathy for Evelyn at times, but my heart truly went out to Hank, whom she betrayed to his near death and then abandoned. Bieber directs his cast from the inside out, palpably capturing the light inside Hank/Payne and the ugliness in the beautiful Evelyn/Larter. One very touching scene has Billy Byrd, now a troubled alcoholic whom nobody will hire, drive to Hank’s home and sit outside in his car, forbidden by Evelyn from coming around anymore. Hank climbs in the car, and Billy pleads with him to take his guitar—the guitar they both invented—and hold it. “It’s the most beautiful thing I own, and if I keep it, I’m going to sell it. I really don’t want to sell it.” The love between the two men is deeply felt, and the scene plays with great emotional truth. Other standout performances include Lane Garrison as Hank’s brother Bill and John Fleck as Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas, the leader of Hank’s studio band.
The outstanding music includes original recordings of “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and Payne as Hank Garland doing “Sugarfoot Rag.” The closing credits show the real Hank doing the song as well. The story does rather play like a standard country biopic, with a crazy and troubled woman at its core. Nonetheless, no matter how the script was embellished for dramatic purposes, the film largely reflects an emotional reality that felt true.
The hubby and I saw the film right after the music biopic of Darby Crash and The Germs, What We Do Is Secret. While I preferred The Germs movie, I must give Crazy its props. These two films are well-done musician biopics and are worth your attention.
From the early 60s to about the mid 80s, you weren’t likely to see much dancing on the big screen. Yes, there were Broadway-style musicals, particularly in the 60s, and a few glances toward disco with films like Saturday Night Fever. In general, however, the Free Love generation was amazingly uptight when it came to dancing. Disco died among white Americans, but continued on in the African-American community, changing and growing entirely new forms under the radar of mainstream culture.
The 80s marked the first breakthrough into the mainstream of this vital new dance scene. Beat Street (1984) brought breakdancing memorably to the movies. There seemed to be some money in programming dance films, so a smattering of them for the teen market began appearing. There was definitely something unusual about the way these movies split along racial/dance style lines. Breakdancing, hip hop, crumping, salsa, and other grassroots forms were the province of African Americans and Latinos. White dancers stuck with ballroom and ballet. The first real crossover film, Save the Last Dance (2001), has nondancer Julia Stiles play a thoroughly white-bread ballet dancer who learns hip hop when she ends up going to school on the black South Side of Chicago. This film was very good and a surprise hit in the normally moribund movie month of January. Its honesty about the cultural divide in the way Stiles’ character had to negotiate a world both foreign and hostile to her was a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, its bold experiment has not yet been repeated. White America is in desperate need of a dance revival, and I hope that a steady stream of African-American dance films will help lead the way.
Stomp the Yard tells a familiar, even hackneyed, story. DJ (Columbus Short) is the head of a dance crew that battles with other crews in the rough dance clubs of Los Angeles. DJ, a cocky hothead loaded with talent, decides to diss another crew on its home turf. His younger brother Duron (Chris Brown) begs him to back off. DJ says, “I really want this.” Duron reminds him that they are a team and should act as a team, but he eventually agrees to the dance challenge. Payback’s a bitch when DJ and his crew are jumped by the other crew after the dance battle, and Duron is shot and killed. DJ serves a stretch in jail for assault and then is packed off to Atlanta to work as a gardener for his Uncle Nate (Harry J. Lennix) and attend Truth University on a scholarship. DJ’s the quintessential street kid thrown in among the elite of black society to learn lessons in humility and teamwork, and as he says late in the film, “become a better person” through education, brotherhood, and the love of a good woman. In turn, he teaches the straightlaced, sometimes ruthless preppies at Truth University how to get down and be real. We even get a competition at the end that rivals that of any sports movie out there.
So why would I recommend such a formulaic film? Two reasons: the performance by Columbus Short, which is superb and which forms the strong backbone that lifts this film beyond the commonplace, and the dancing and choreography that point to the future of dance in America and around the world.
DJ moves into a dorm and tries to understand his new and alien world. He walks around campus and sees a dance crew performing the traditional step dancing (“stomping the yard”) on a riser. It is composed of the members and pledges of Theta Nu Theta, a fraternity that has lost the national step competition seven years in a row to the powerhouse Mu Gamma Xis. DJ watches this stiff form of dancing as though he were a traveler from the future looking at the yokels of the past. Indeed, he is—his street dancing is exactly what stepping needs to remain relevant to the younger generation of college students. DJ commits a faux pas when he breaks through the line of the Mu Gammas, who are getting ready to perform, to pursue a girl he was instantly smitten with the first time he saw her—April Palmer (Meaghan Good), daughter of the university provost and girlfriend of Mu Gamma leader Grant (Darren Dewitt Henson).
Freshman hazing doesn’t sit too well with DJ, who fights back. Being told by Grant to leave April alone doesn’t sit too well, either. DJ finds a way to get to know her by signing up to be tutored by her. One night, DJ’s roommates take him to a local club, where he shows off his dance skills. Grant tries to recruit him to pledge Mu Gamma Xi. DJ knows it’s just because of his dance skills. “Stepping’s for pussies,” he spits into Grant’s face. “What do you do?” says an angry Grant. “I battle,” is the answer. His intensity is so real, we can feel it.
Theta Nu also tries to recruit DJ. Sylvester (Brian J. White) admits he hopes to knock Mu Gamma off their pedestal in the step competition, but he also offers DJ the opportunity to join a brotherhood he can count on the rest of his life. Having just lost a brother, DJ takes this message to heart. He pledges the Theta Nus and begins to challenge their traditional step style. He also wins over April by showing her that he really cares about her as a person, not just as an accessory to the good life, as Grant does. He plays love scenes with just the right touch, intimate without being too forward. One scene really worked for me: DJ becomes a little goofy and tongue-tied when he’s out with April at lunch, a lunch he won by answering her question from his tutoring lesson correctly. He flirts, but she makes a comment about still being with Grant. He says, “You’re fine, but you ain’t all that.” April is warmed by DJ’s bad attempt to cover up his feelings for her. It’s very sweet and real.
There are obstacles and dirty tricks thrown in DJ’s way, including suspension for lying about having a criminal record on his scholarship application. The film climaxes at the national step competition, at which the rival fraternities perform stunning routines layered with street moves and special effects. I guess I don’t have to tell you who wins, but the final dance-off really shows how far DJ has come in dealing with his life and responsibility for Duron’s death.
The video below gives a chronological rundown of the dancing in this movie. The flash, rhythm, and unison are obvious. What may not be so obvious is the precise technique of many of the dancers, especially Short, who has a long resume as a professional dancer. So good is the choreography of the club sequences that they seem effortlessly spontaneous and surprising. Short contributed most of the choreography, and he really knows how to work with space and play off other dancers to create the challenges that are so much like jazz musicians who are cutting heads (competitively improvising). On the vast stage of the step competition, he gets in Grant’s face, closing the space and upping the ante for the competitors and the audience.
If you’re not a dance fan per se, there’s probably nothing compelling for you in Stomp the Yard. But if you want to see what will be bubbling up in our culture in the immediate few years and watch a dancer who can act and dance with fire, this is one dance movie you’ve got to see.
Neil Young has, over the many years in which he’s made such a huge impact on rock music, harbored a second career as a filmmaker. His role as movie director was on display fairly recently in 2004′s Greendale, an interesting and informative work in which Young illustrated in film an album’s worth of original song-cycle about a northern California hippie clan’s family history.
When he takes up the camera, Young is self-deprecating: He uses the nom du cinema of Bernard Shakey. That’s actually a pretty accurate description of his film style. Lo-fi, DIY, he cultivated the modern ethos of feigned handheld incompetence to produce a homespun quality that has an admirable ability to cut through the emotional clutter and go straight to the heart of his meaning – much like his music.
Mr. Shakey’s first efforts, it turns out, came way back in early 1971, in the midst of a time that was the most exciting and productive of Young’s career as a rock musician. It was then that he decided to minutely film a solo acoustic tour he undertook as he prepared what he thought at the time was going to be a live album and accompanying film, but which eventually morphed into his classic studio album Harvest. The film of the acoustic shows mouldered on the shelf until he began a project in 1997 to publish an archive of all manner of unreleased materials, with the best so far being the DVD Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971.
Released in March with an accompanying audio CD, the concert film is best described as grainy and intimate. Filmed by Wim Van der Linden under the direction of the 25-year-old Young, the film features at a lot of tight close-ups of Young with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica, and occasionally follows him as he moves stiffly to the piano. He had suffered a debilitating back injury in 1970, and as he lay in a hospital bed at that time, he wrote many of the unforgettable songs that appeared on Harvest, such as “Old Man,” “Needle and the Damage Done” and “Heart of Gold.” During the acoustic tour filmed here, he introduces these now-classic songs as something new.
To see him perform them in front of an audience that does not recognize them is to move powerfully back to a time when the Kent State massacre was still a burning topic and the fight against Richard Nixon’s Vietnam war policies were just as urgent as today’s conflict over Iraq. The enthusiastic response of small, in-the-round audience to Young’s then-current antiwar song “Ohio” is eerily reminiscent of the kind of reaction that performers get today when they bash George Bush. At the same time, it’s depressing: It makes you realize that the lessons of one generation are largely lost on the next and that each has to learn the terrible lessons of the abuse of power for itself.
The documentary’s visual style is unremarkable. It’s meant to be a filmed record, and as such it succeeds. Its main accomplishment is acoustic. The sound is pristine and so detailed that Young’s every vocal nuance – at a time when his voice was at its clearest and most emotive – is thrillingly captured in the smallest detail. The set list includes such songs as “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Helpless,” “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” and “Down By the River.” Young performs them here without the harmonies of his pals David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills, and minus the loud rock accompaniment of his band Crazy Horse. The 1970-71 acoustic tour was a chance for him to perform in theaters that normally hosted plays or classical music, such as Toronto’s Massey Hall, Chicago’s Auditorium Theater, and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.
The thing about Neil Young: Live at Massey Hall 1971 that makes it such a precious document is that it captures one of the 20th century’s most important cultural figures at the precise moment when he was just graduating into that role. You can tell from his demeanor that he was beginning to grasp that he was turning into a legend and icon, but also hadn’t yet tired of the music that would become his legacy. l
When the yellow moon begins to bloom / Every night I dream a little dream / And of course Prince Charming is the theme for me / Although I realize as well as you / It is seldom that a dream comes true / To me it’s clear that he’ll appear / Some day he’ll come along / The man I love / And he’ll be big and strong / The man I love / And when he comes my way / I’ll do my best to make him stay… – “The Man I Love,” George and Ira Gershwin
Taxi Driver’s surprise success gave Scorsese heft and fame. He was at this time tagged, along with the other young directors taking American cinema by storm—Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, John Carpenter, John Milius, Michael Cimino, John Landis, Peter Bogdanovich, and others—as a “Movie Brat,” an epithet that, like the label “Impressionist” about a century earlier, became a rallying cry. If there was a common feature of these directors, it was their argot of total cinema. Their first and almost last point of reference was earlier movies. They reinvigorated Hollywood as a commercial entity, largely due to their willingness, even love, of making genre cinema, in recreating the dream films of their youths. All of them worshipped Fellini and Godard, but Scorsese was just about the only one damn fool enough to want to be them.
Coppola had given the generation its big breakthrough with his canny melding of the cool, studious effects of European art cinema with epic American narrative in the Godfather films. For all these filmmakers, there were differing layers of irony in their attempts to meld auteurism, art cinema, and classic Hollywood. Many of them wanted to take a shot at the total stylisation of the musical. Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Coppola’s One From The Heart, Landis’ The Blues Brothers, even Spielberg’s 1941 (which he made for the opportunity to stage a 1940s musical number), were all troubled productions, most of which flopped and dented the Brats’ domination.
Scorsese went to Hollywood to make New York, New York, but remained a New Yorker. For his fellow Movie Brat directors, melding old and new, hip and square, lush and spare was a necessary and entertaining act of cultural synthesis. Scorsese, however, dedicated his new film to examining precisely the gap between life and art, old and new style, façade and critique, spectacle and honesty. New York, New York sets out to be, as Marty called it, a film noir musical inspired in form by such showbiz tales as The Man I Love and A Star Is Born, with a screenplay by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin. It tells, in livid, often bruising detail, of a marriage between two professional narcissists, Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Scorsese set out to create the texture of a personal, realistic film in the Cassavetes mould—virtually all dialogue improvised, which made editing the film hellish. The film’s exchanges make up in vivacity what they lack in the arch, contoured crackle of screwball style.
The first half-hour of New York, New York is a virtuoso, near-continual scene. It’s VJ Day in New York, and the streets have erupted in confetti and abandon. Jimmy strips off his uniform, casts it out the window, and hits the town in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt looking for just one thing: to get laid. The jam-packed Rainbow Room, where Benny Goodman and Orchestra are playing, represented the peak of the sweet glamour of the Big Band era as well as the emotional apogee of four years of war. Jimmy tries his pick-up lines on every bird in sight. He is especially drawn to Francine, seated by herself waiting for friends, splendid in her USO uniform. When his every attempt has failed on the hostile, evasive woman, he announces a new plan: “I want to stay here and annoy you!” He does just this for the rest of the film.
Eventually, when Francine’s fellow USO performer Ellen ( Kathie McGinnis) arrives, her date is Jimmy’s friend Eddie di Muzzio (Frank Sivero, soon a Scorsese regular), who has arranged for the four of them to hook up. Jimmy makes sure to cook Francine good before dropping her home. The next day, Francine is trying to find Jimmy to contact Ellen, who’s on the run from killers and shacked up with Eddie. She watches in amusement as Jimmy bluffs the hotel’s concierge, posing as a wounded war veteran (“Anzio!” he hollers, “I was at Anzio!”) and skipping out as always without paying his bill after being manhandled. Jimmy’s in the not-so-fine tradition of Scorsese’s keenly observed Noo Yawk flakes; indeed, New York’s riskiest, most original idea is to make such a flake the hero. For Jimmy is, we learn, talented. He contrives to drag Francine to his audition with a Brooklyn club manager (Dick Miller), and shows he’s a mean tenor sax player, but too edgy and modern for the cleaned-up tastes of the time. Francine reveals she’s just as talented; when the manager expresses a desire for something like Maurice Chevalier, Francine launches into a sweet, swinging rendition of “You Brought a New Kind Of Love,” which Jimmy accompanies with contrapuntal elegance. They are fused instantly into a double act.
Romance, or something like it, blossoms. After a gig, Jimmy won’t let Francine get out of the taxi they share to her hotel by kissing her. Francine skitters, slips, and flops about, half in the pouring rain, trying to escape his voracious mouth. Francine finds she’s been offered a gig with the touring big band of Frankie Harte (Georgie Auld), and Jimmy is also offered a slot. Unfortunately, he’s gone before she can tell him, so she packs up and goes to join the band whilst sending her agent (the great Lionel Stander) to inform Jimmy. Jimmy promptly skips town and catches up with the band. He almost gets himself assaulted by Hart when he sits in the audience, draws Francine off stage, and won’t let her return. Jimmy is simultaneously declaring his “not love. I like you very much” whilst ranting at being left behind: “You do not leave me! I leave you!”
De Niro gives the greatest portrait of the artist as major-league irritant since Kirk Douglas’s Vincent Van Gogh. Jimmy’s alternately (and often concurrently) charming, funny, annoying, foolish, dishonest, angry, sullen, violent, and prone to larceny, but always propelled by a volcanic creativity and contempt for a world of schmucks, squares, and sycophants. He dances up steps in joy, throws tables in rage, play-acts, fakes out, schmoozes, assaults, and plays some mean jazz. (De Niro learnt sax technique, but the music he makes is by Auld.) He tries to sweep the world and Francine off their feet with the purity of his energy, and it sometimes works.
The tour continues, endless wheeling between towns in the band bus; Harte’s crusty and boozy, but he keeps the band disciplined. He won’t give Jimmy any opportunity to play his arrangements or his bop style, but he often relies on Jimmy to lead the band. Jimmy dabbles in composition, tracing out the bare notes that will become the title tune, whilst Francine writes poetry. After eading one of her poems about him, Jimmy says, “That was it! That was you proposal, get your coat on, put your shoes on, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” and drags her to a justice of the peace. When Frankie decides he’s fed up, he concedes to Francine that Jimmy “blows a barrelful of tenor, oh, but he’s some kind of pain in the ass!” Jimmy takes over the orchestra, but appears set for a flop until Francine saves their bacon at an audition with a soulful rendition of “The Man I Love.” With Francine headlining, the orchestra enjoys major popularity, but Jimmy is quietly furious she’s getting the attention, and he jealously guards his command. One evening Francine dashes off stage and reveals she’s pregnant. She returns to New York to have the child, and the band, saddled with a far less talented singer, Bernice Bennett (Mary Kay Place), whom Jimmy beds in Francine’s absence, soon faces disaster.
Jimmy signs over the band to another leader, and returns to New York to find Francine riding on a wave of good publicity, her agent having secured her recording dates; Jimmy, the arch, proud individualist, feels she’s degrading herself by kowtowing. Jimmy meets up with black musician friends and jams with them at a Harlem club (“Do they let white cats in?” “Just come in the back way.”). For the first time, Jimmy’s style is set free and wild in the be-bop milieu. Meanwhile, behind the pyrotechnics of Jimmy’s approach to life, Francine grows, quietly, from defensive doll, to urgently helpful wife, to coolly calculating go-getter who gets it. And Jimmy, without saying a word, knows he’s going to get screwed by life again. The subterranean arc of anxiety in Jimmy begins driving him crazy.
Like many Scorsese narratives, New York, New York is a study of a macho slow burn, except that this one remains entirely interpersonal. Jimmy gets himself thrown out of a nightclub by getting increasingly soused and truculent as Francine is courted by a Decca executive (Lenny Gaines). In one of the film’s most striking images, Jimmy is manhandled along the entry hall lined by bright neon tubes, embodying the electric distress by which he is caged. He and Francine fight in their car, whereupon Francine is stricken and almost loses the baby. When Jimmy visits her in the hospital, they mouth caring statements for each other, but it’s clear what held them together has dissolved.
Francine is much more a question mark than Jimmy. Minnelli often looks dazed by De Niro, appropriate to the character, yet she barely registers when not singing; her trademark acting touches feel by rote in comparison. Francine is, finally, the opportunist of the pair. Insufferable as he is, Jimmy is curiously honest even when bullshitting. Very few films paint so vivid a tale of how colliding egos and intentions can destroy relationships. Jimmy and Francine are scrutinized by the camera like a microscope on a pair of mating insects. In the space of about a year, we have one failed marriage, the kind that Francine, later a big Hollywood star, will sigh over if mentioned by interviewers.
In the film’s epilogue, we are treated to a short film purporting to be Francine’s latest hit movie, Happy Endings, which Jimmy is watching in a theater. Happy Endings is a brilliantly made pastiche of 50s-style musicals, charting the rise of a doe-eyed usher to major star who yearns for her gentlemanly agent Donald (Larry Kerns), who disappeared just when she made it big. Happy Endings presents just such a spin on the New York, New York story that such a musical would have done. The number was originally edited out of Scorsese’s film, and this was credited with its flop; without the sequence, the film’s careful alternation of glam and grit is unbalanced.
Out in the real world, Jimmy’s not doing too badly. He has a spiffy nightclub, his song “New York, New York” has, in its cool jazz incarnation, become Casey Kasem’s theme song, and Francine’s singing her mountain-leveling version in her live shows. Actually, of course, the song is the work of Kander and Ebb. (In the film, Francine’s poetry becomes the lyric, with Jimmy unimpressed: “These vagabond shoes…are longing to stray…and step around the heart of it?” he reads, nose curled up like it’s week-old fish.) Backstage after seeing her sing, Jimmy meets his son, and proposes he and Francine get together later; she agrees. But neither can finally be bothered.
And yet the film around them is a lovingly textured dream, a paean to the total style of classic Hollywood, indeed catching how artifice can sometimes suggest reality better than reality: in the snow-crusted villages the band tours in, where Jimmy and Francine bicker and are married, or the stunning vignette of Jimmy watching, after the first night with Francine, a sailor and girl jitterbugging in the street below a railway line, suggesting an otherworldly staging by Gene Kelly of Alfred Eistenstadt’s Times Square kiss photo. The musical sequences are bravura in style. Marty’s camera (with immeasurable aid from DP Laszlo Kovacs) zooms, dollies, and glides, picking out soloists and darting in on them, then drawing back and painting rich group shots. Scorsese tips his hat to the influence of Michael Powell at several junctions: Jimmy signs into a hotel as “M. Powell;” the scene where Jimmy cracks up in the nightclub is decorated entirely in neon that glows an infernal, maddening red, a favorite signifier for both directors; and the way Happy Endings reflects, in a distinct, distorted mirror, the larger film’s story, is reminiscent of the ballet at the centre of The Red Shoes.
The central couple’s personal separation symbolizes a vital split in American pop culture. Francine goes Hollywood—big, slick, entertaining, vital but without edge, embracing of artifice over truth. Jimmy remains New York—hip, hard, leaning to black culture, small in scale but intently creative, calmly resigned to his busted dreams (“Yeah I saw Sappy Endings,” he tells Francine). The story, conceived as a variation on A Star Is Born doesn’t entirely reverse the formula; instead of having one figure supplant another in stardom, New York, New York suggests there is more than one kind of stardom, more than one kind of success. This Scorsese film obviously had a stylistic influence on such jazz-and-nostalgia-themed films that followed as ‘Round Midnight, Bird, and Henry & June. It failed on first release, but there is a happy ending; when the film was restored to its proper form, it did good business in a 1980 re-release.