Monday, December 30, 2013

Movie Monday: The "The Movies Love Musicians" Edition

"Rhapsody in Blue" is one of my favorite pieces of music. It is also the title of a film that purports to tell the life story of George Gershwin, the composer of that piece of music and many others, who died way too young (at age 38) of a brain tumor. What the film is, unfortunately, is a highly fictionalized account of Gershwin's life, including the addition of two romances that never actually happened. The film, which was made in 1943 but not released until 1945, stars Robert Alda (yes, that would be Alan Alda's father) as George Gershwin, in his first screen role after a career in vaudeville. While it takes huge liberties with the story of Gershwin's life, it also has several of the people Gershwin knew and worked with playing themselves. These folks include Oscar Levant and Al Jolson, who - equally unfortunately - reprises his blackface rendition of "Swannee", as you can see in the trailer from the time of the film's original release:

One of these days we'll have to discuss all the ramifications of performing in blackface, but today is not that day. "Rhapsody in Blue" actually got two Academy Award nominations, for Best Musical Score and for Best Sound, and while it did not win either award, it was also nominated for the Grand Prize at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival.

Well, Hollywood has a tendency to make shit up, and it also likes to make movies about musicians. This means that the films that result can be very good, but can also go very wrong. So, I think, you can't go into a film biography of a performer and expect to get the full, unadulterated, true story from Hollywood. But you might still get a good film. Maybe even an award-winning film.

Certainly that's what we get with "Amadeus" (1984), which starred Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri. The story is actually framed as Salieri telling the story of Mozart and his own rivalry with the more famous composer. Originally a stage play, "Amadeus" is a really good movie that was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 8 of them, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Abraham's portrayal of Salieri. It also won, among others, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction.

Now, I have to confess that when I first saw "Amadeus", my response was that its thesis was that if Mozart was alive today, he would be David Lee Roth. And who knows how close the film is to the truth of Mozart's personality. I don't know enough about the composer's life to be able to say. In this clip, where Mozart meets with the Emperor and with Salieri, who is the court composer, Mozart is shown as supremely talented and equally tactless:

My favorite scene though, is when Mozart is told by the Emperor that one of his compositions has "too many notes":

Really? How do you tell someone as talented as Mozart that there are too many notes in his work? Well, apparently, easily if you're the Emperor. This is one of those scenes that, if it didn't really happen, should have, just to make history more interesting.

"Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980) is another one of those great movies that, even if it does take some liberties with reality, is still a great, great movie. The story of country singer Loretta Lynn, it was nominated for but did not win Best Picture. However, Sissy Spacek, who portrayed Lynn, did win Best Actress in a Leading Role. I suspect that, along with her usual wonderful performance, the fact that Spacek did her own singing in the film helped her win the award. Tommy Lee Jones played Lynn's husband, Doolittle, and Levon Helm made his acting debut as Loretta's father. Also in the film and playing themselves were several country entertainers, including Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, and the wonderful Minnie Pearl. If you don't know Pearl's country comedy, you really need to explore that.

Here are a couple of short scenes from near the beginning of the film:

And here is Sissy Spacek singing "Coal Miner's Daughter" on "The Midnight Special" in 1980, with Levon Helm on drums. You'll notice that the song references one of the scenes in the clip above:

But then there are film biographies of musicians that, well, aren't so great. Take Oliver Stone's film "The Doors", for example. No, really. Please, take it. Although two of the three members of the band surviving at the time the film was made, made cameo appearances, all three later criticized the film for showing a one-dimensional portrait of Jim Morrison, with the remaining band members agreeing that the Morrison on the screen was not the man they knew. On the other hand, all three said that they had difficulty distinguishing Kilmer's voice (he did part of his own singing, which was blended with recordings of Morrison) from Morrison's in the final product. I think the problem here is that Oliver Stone has his view of the world and he has a tendency sometimes to not let the facts get in the way of what he sees as a good story. At any rate, here are some scenes from the opening of the film:

At any rate, despite mixed reviews for the film itself, Val Kilmer got rave reviews for his portrayal of Morrison. And he does manage to capture the physicality of the man, based on films and photos I've seen of Morrison. Still, it would have been nice if Stone had made a movie about the band and about what people who knew him said was the real Morrison, rather than playing up the legend and the myths about him that have grown up since the singer's death in 1971.

Which brings us to the end of Movie Monday's for 2013. Please tune in next week to see what 2014 will bring.

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