Wednesday, October 12, 2011

De-Lovely: Every Song is a Weapon

For the most part, I hate musicals. It's funny, because films like The Sound of Music, The King and I, Singing in the Rain and My Fair Lady were staples of my childhood cinematic experience - and pleasant ones, too. But the shine wore off. At some point, I began to see through the veneer of their engaging numbers to the stale, even oppressive, narratives that they couched. I began to be irritated that the story would come to a halt just to have a character sing and dance, illustrating some idea that was terribly plain to see.

John Lasseter has it exactly right: "Story is king." Cinema is primarily a narrative medium, and that which does not serve the story does not make a good film. And most musicals are chock of time-wasters, from a narrative point of view. Worse, their spectacle is a distraction from a misogynistic message, despite the central presence of some dynamic female leads. Sound of Music? Daddy needs to be king. The King and I? The king is daddy "from bee to bee to bee." Singing in the Rain? Life is only good with the right man. My Fair Lady? Yeah...

So, it's rare that I like a musical of any kind, but when I do, I really, really love it. Irwin Winkler's 2004 De-Lovely is one of my rare treasures. It's self-aware but not insular; it's counter-cultural but doesn't alienate; it's clear without being facile and sharp but not smug. And it has a kick-ass soundtrack.
De-Lovely received a lot of mixed reviews, with only a 53% Metacritic rating and even worse on Rotten Tomatoes (only 48% fresh). Some of the more even-handed (but still mixed) reviews bemoan the lack of engaging characterization, its historical inaccuracies, or a incoherent, unsatisfying narrative. The individual elements are fantastic, they agree, especially the updated musical numbers (a gamut of Porter's hits sung by a cavalcade of contemporary stars like Elvis Costello, Alanis Morrisset and Robbie Williams). But each damns the film with faint praise like "But aside from the major annoyance that it is just plain hard to sit through,De-Lovely is a great movie."

There's something important to note about so many of the reviews: the authors can't help themselves from dropping references to Cole Porter and his songs. It's as if the postmodern aesthetic of bricolage and hypertextuality is catching. It seems to me that these reviewers are obtusely missing the point, griping about the very things that make De-Lovely great.

Unconventional narrative. The stories of De-Lovely (there are several) consist of frames within frames within frames. To begin, of course, the film itself is framed; a finger pointing to itself, holding itself up as an object of scrutiny and, as we will see, interaction. Within the cinematic frame, there is the central narrative frame of  Cole to reviewing his life as replayed on a musical stage. Within that frame exist the musical numbers themselves. Notably, these spiral back out as a commentary on Porter's life itself, and even further as commentary on the film and, by extension on cinema itself. Heady stuff, huh? And yet, this doesn't distract one iota from John Barrowman's and Kevin Kline's sexually-charged duet, "Night and Day."
Subject matter. I can count on one hand the number of mainstream films about a white marriage. De-Lovely is the only one that dares to talk about a heterosexual love story within a such an arrangement. and, contrary to what so many critics may think, it's the characters that really pull this off. Maybe it's just too much of a stretch to imagine someone as strong and self-possessed as Ashley Judd's Linda Lee Porter being so understanding, so clear-headed and yet so obviously conflicted about her marriage to - let's be frank - a ragingly promiscuous homosexual man. And while Kline plays Porter as a child-like epicurean, the shades of regret and doubt that slowly invade his demeanor are masterfully done. De-Lovely does a courageous job of telling the story of the Other - and moreover, letting the Other tell its own story.

Adaptation through transformation, not copying. The use of contemporary artists to re-interpret Cole Porter's hits did not sit well with some literal-minded critics. I think it's a master-stroke, because this is a movie. That is, this is a fictional recreation of a myth and not even necessarily the myth of Cole Porter. Indeed, you could say that the essential truth of Cole Porter is not to be found in this film. And this is a good thing. De-Lovely understands that "truth" is not found; it's made. It's a construct, and a complex, slippery one at that. This attitude is mirrored in the music production: Porter's songs are stripped bare of their original sound and rebuilt from the ground up. The result is universally fantastic: the lyrics and melody are still there, the traces of Porter's genius, but the surrounding sensibilities are refreshingly different.

Let's revisit my statement that Lasseter has it exactly right. Is story king anymore? Yes - and no. De-Lovely eschews the conventional narrative even of the biopic (which is usually a myth of redemption) for a much more complex and unstable collection of vignettes that nonetheless cohere breathlessly. It's one of those rare films that has faith that we can follow along while it plays fast and lose with time and even space. I love how Jonathan Pryce's character enters into the scene with Louis Meyer: he talks to the screen! And the screen talks back.
It's not just self-congratulatory, navel-gazing post-modernism here. It's an invitation, and incitement to action. Question. Meddle. Turn your constraints into tools. It's the essence of great cinema: an engaging story with a novel twist on old stories that tells us something about ourselves, then turns us around and sends out the theater door with a fire in our belly.

Read a great deconstruction of the film by Penny Spirou at Refractory

Watch De-Lovely on Netflix.

Buy the DVD from Amazon.

No comments: