Category Archives: Musical

Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.

We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.

The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.

The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.

Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.

And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.

Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.

Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.

Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.

The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his BBC television serial; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Richard Marks; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Bob Mackie; produced by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Steve Martin (Arthur), Bernadette Peters (Eileen), Jessica Harper (Joan), Vernel Bagneris (The Accordion Man), John McMartin (Mr. Warner), John Karlen (The Detective), Jay Garner (The Banker), Robert Fitch (Al), Tommy Rall (Ed), Eliska Krupka (The Blind Girl), and Christopher Walken (Tom).


All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)

There are few secrets in All That Jazz; the film immediately forecasts where it’s going, with clear shots of star Roy Scheider in the hospital amid the other quickly cut montage sequences. But these are flash forwards, as opposed to the present action and then we’re seeing flashback. Because we’re actually not even seeing “reality” yet. First we meet Jessica Lange, mysterious, magical, dressed in white, in Scheider’s head maybe. These sequences are—except when director Fosse and editor Alan Heim cut them to be so—disconnected from the main narrative. They’re even disconnected from Scheider’s eventual hospital bed hallucinations. They’re not in his imagination, not in his consciousness… maybe it’s his soul. Doesn’t really matter. Putting a noun to it doesn’t change how it functions, giving Fosse and co-writer Robert Alan Aurthur a way to do some show not tell exposition on Scheider’s history as well as give him an egoless outlet.

The film’s present action begins with Broadway director Scheider casting for his next production. Fosse goes through the introduction to Lange, then the quick cut montage sequence of Scheider gearing up for the day (Visine, Dexedrine, cigarettes, positive affirmations), and then gets to the first big dance number. The sequence—Scheider cutting auditioning dancers, then working with the ones who make it—is breathtaking. Set to a live performance (which adds a whole other layer) of George Benson covering “On Broadway,” it’s not just about Fosse’s composition, which showcases both the individual artistry of the dancers but also the scale of the audition as well as Scheider’s place in it, and he and Heim’s editing, which captures movement peerlessly, but also introducing the main supporting cast. Well, minus Ann Reinking. But we meet ex-wife Leland Palmer and daughter Erzsebet Foldi and then the show guys—producers William LeMassena and Robert Hitt, accountant David Margulies, song writer Anthony Holland—from all their various reactions, we get some grounding for Scheider. The show guys are able to tell his not show-minded interest in one of the dancers (Deborah Geffner), which Foldi and Palmer are able to pick up on as well, though they react differently. But Scheider’s not just doing the show, he’s also cutting together a movie, The Stand-Up, about a comedian (played by Cliff Gorman), and running the editing team ragged. It’s also causing Scheider’s contact guy with the studio—Max Wright—nuts.

It’s at the screening of the day’s cuts we meet Reinking, the girlfriend, which is just before we get to see what kind of womanizer everyone’s dealing with. Since leaving the auditions and editing his movie to exhaustion, Scheider’s also had time to ring up Geffner to make a date.

There’s a lot of humanity to Scheider already. The audition sequence, when he’s cutting people, there’s great care in the film to show his hesitations and sympathies. The scene between Scheider and Geffner is where we get to see how Scheider’s empathy has got a strange formula to it. He’s heartbreakingly rude to Geffner, absolutely piggish, but also aware of how his behavior plays out. The asides with Lange have set up Scheider’s convoluted, sorted sexual history with women—Keith Gordon plays him in the flashbacks to working as a young teen in burlesque theaters, where the dancers tease (and don’t tease)—and then we get to see the repercussions of his devout philandering play out with Reinking. Geffner is, apparently, to Reinking as Reinking was to Palmer. Only Palmer’s Scheider’s creative muse—he’s only doing the show so she can headline it—and Reinking’s clearly a good dancer. Geffner is not, adding further complications and giving us a chance to see how Scheider works with his dancers.

The only person Scheider can’t manage—though with Palmer, it’s more she lets him manage her—is Foldi. There’s this amazing scene where Scheider and Foldi dance, with her trying to talk to him about settling down and him workaholicing his way through it, and even though he’s in charge of choreographing the dance, everything she says takes him a little by surprise. The relationship between Scheider and Foldi—well, Foldi and everyone (Reinking and Palmer) have an amazing relationship. In the chaos Scheider drums up so he can control his creative efforts, Foldi’s the only other one able to weather it. Because, like Scheider, she’s native to it.

Scheider’s just cracked the show when the heart troubles go from giving him pause to requiring hospitalization. It’s approximately halfway through the movie. Then there’s the medical drama parts, which race by—once Scheider’s condition improves, Fosse does a lengthy montage sequence, cutting between various moments during Scheider’s hospital stay and some external factors—Foldi’s experience of her dad being hospitalized, the show guys trying to get another director (John Lithgow). Fosse will drop longer scenes in the montage, kind of taking a break before going back to spinning around, seeing all the various moments. It’s all fairly light. Lighter than anything else has been in the film to this point.

So when Scheider’s inability to control his urges hits again and he takes a turn for the worse, it’s time for the hallucination musical numbers. There are four of them, a showcase for Reinking, Palmer, Foldi, and then women in general. They’re all amazing. But whether or not they’re enough to keep Lange’s symbolic lips of Scheider’s….

The choreography of all the sequences is startling. None of them aren’t great. But then there’s how Fosse shoots them too. How Giuseppe Rotunno lights them. How Heim cuts them. It’s extraordinary work.

Scheider’s performance is great. Then Palmer. Then Foldi. Palmer doesn’t get any expository devices with angelic Jessica Langes to establish her character. She barely gets it in the script. She’s got to do it all with looks. She does it. And Foldi’s excellent. Everyone else is good… Reinking has to play a lot with a stone face and she does it well. The show guys are all good. They’re kind of the comic relief. Even as they cover their asses.

Lithgow’s fun.

The music, the dancing, the direction, the technicals… all of it is exceptional. Heim and Fosse’s editing—which is the subject of the movie in the movie subplot, so the editing is begging attention—is singular.

All That Jazz is a peerless motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bob Fosse; written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Fosse; director of photography, Giuseppe Rotunno; edited by Alan Heim; music by Ralph Burns; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; costume designer, Albert Wolsky; produced by Aurthur; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle), Deborah Geffner (Victoria), Ann Reinking (Kate Jagger), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Anthony Holland (Paul Dann), Robert Hitt (Ted Christopher), David Margulies (Larry Goldie), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), Michael Tolan (Dr. Ballinger), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Keith Gordon (Young Joe), and Jessica Lange (Angelique).


Jesus Christ Superstar (1973, Norman Jewison)

There’s a lot bad about Jesus Christ Superstar. Some of it is casting, a lot of it is Jewison’s direction choices. He’s clearly thrilled to be shooting in the Middle East, but it doesn’t connect to his actual narrative. It connects to the subject matter, just not the film Jewison ends up making. The one where there’s little or no connective tissue between scenes and where Jewison can’t figure out where to have his actors look while they’re singing. It’s kind of important in a musical and sometimes they look to the sky–occasionally even when it’s appropriate–other times they look directly into the camera.

Or, a lot of the time, Jewison never shows them singing at all. Instead, the music of Jesus Christ Superstar is a soundtrack to their otherwise silent lives. Very silent. There’s maybe a baaa from one of the symbolic sheep. It gets to be a real problem in the second half, when a crowd is chasing Jesus (a very blond, Robin Hood-goateed Ted Neeley) and it’s clear there ought to be ambient noise. Of course, the movie’s jumped into the deep end by that time so it doesn’t really matter.

The film’s first act is the strongest, even if Jewison can’t figure out how to direct Carl Anderson’s scenes. Anderson plays Judas, who gets the opening number. Jewison’s solution is to make Anderson tiny, letting the scenery overpower. It takes Jewison until the second act to get comfortable showing his actors actually singing. With Anderson it works. Anderson acts while singing. Yvonne Elliman is phenomenal at it, even when Jewison edits her songs horribly. Neeley’s not so good. He’s a stone-faced Jesus. Though still somewhat likable.

During the second act, anyway. In the third act, when he’s just a prisoner, there’s so much other bad stuff going on, there’s no point in keeping track of Neeley.

The bad stuff in the third act are Barry Dennen and Josh Mostel. Dennen’s bad. Some of it is Jewison’s direction of the scene. Some of it isn’t. Mostel is just plain horrible. The scene’s terribly directed and probably should be offensive if Jewison weren’t just so lame at it and Mostel is horrible. If the film has any good will left at that point, Mostel burns it up. Dennen might be tolerable without him. Though the looping is atrocious on Dennen’s song.

Decent singing and performance from Bob Bingham. Not from Kurt Yaghjian.

Neeley’s got a fine voice. He can’t act but he’s got a fine voice. And it’s not like if he could act, the movie would be much better. Jewison’s got a lot of bad ideas, for symbolism, for narrative, for composition.

Good photography from Douglas Slocombe. Able if terribly conceptualized editing from Antony Gibbs–except when he’s cutting between Anderson’s final number and Neeley’s walk to Golgotha, that sequence is awesomely cut. Kind of lame as far as the cruxifiction scene plays out–Jewison lets his pretense run loose and it fails the promise of Anderson’s finale–but that editing is excellent.

Jewison just does a bad job with it.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Jewison; screenplay by Melvyn Bragg and Jewison, based on the opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Antony Gibbs; music by Lloyd Webber; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Jewison and Robert Stigwood; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ), Carl Anderson (Judas Iscariot), Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate), Bob Bingham (Caiaphas), Larry Marshall (Simon Zealotes), Kurt Yaghjian (Annas), Paul Thomas (Peter), and Josh Mostel (King Herod).


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Jesus Christ Superstar – Live Arena Tour (2012, Laurence Connor and Nick Morris)

Besides having an unwieldy title, Jesus Christ Superstar – Live Arena Tour does have quite a few things to recommend it. Within reason. It’s still just a video taping of a live performance–albeit an occasionally rather decent one, albeit with the ability to do complicated shots. Lots of crane moves and zooms. Unfortunately, taping director Morris isn’t very good. Melanie C gets some particularly bad shots during her solos and it’s clear she knows she’s being filmed, but apparently not from where.

Don’t tell me a Spice Girl doesn’t know how to make a music video.

And Laurence Connor, the director of this staging of the musical, integrates live video footage of the performance already. It’s on a big screen–it’s the Arena version after all–and occasionally you’ll see the timing on the big screen footage is better on the cuts to Morris’s version. There are five credited film editors–including Morris–so I’ll just make it easy by blaming Morris for all of that stuff. Especially all the religious imagery at the end, which is actually counter to how an audience member would be seeing the performance.

Got to make it a little more churchy for Morris, apparently.

As for the performance itself, there are ups and downs. Tim Minchin is good. There are occasional weaker moments, but he’s good. And he gives a great performance. He’s the only principal who acts. Mel C and Ben Forster (as Jesus)… well, I was going to say they perform but not exactly. Mel C performs. Forster just sort of mugs. He’s not good. Mel C is all right, but Forster is just bad. At performing and singing. And acting.

For the first act, I couldn’t stop cringing when he’d sing and then Morris would ineptly capture it.

The supporting cast has some real standouts. Alexander Hanson is awesome. Gerard Bentall is awesome. Pete Gallagher is pretty good, Chris Moyles is okay but Morris really flubs the Herod number. He also starts cutting to cheaper DV for some weak shots in the last quarter or so. Michael Pickering’s duet with Mel C is nice. He doesn’t stand out in anything else (at least, not in a good way), but their duet is nice.

I’m not exactly sure what a good taped performance of Jesus Christ Superstar: The Arena Tour would look like, but it’s not this one. Morris is either lifeless or incompetent. He’s annoyingly obvious. Though, then again, it’s not like Forster’s his fault. Apparently Forster is the fault of the great British public, who cast him through a reality show.

Connor’s production, Minchin, some of the supporting cast, they get it to the finish. The second act, even with Morris’s taping worse, is a significant uptick from the first.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Laurence Connor and Nick Morris; written by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice; lighting director, Steve Nolan; edited by Morris, Brett Sullivan, David Tregoning, and Guy Morley; produced by Dione Orrom and Sullivan; released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

Starring Tim Minchin (Judas), Ben Forster (Jesus Christ), Melanie C (Mary Magdalane), Alexander Hanson (Pontius Pilate), Pete Gallagher (Caiaphas), Gerard Bentall (Annas), Michael Pickering (Peter), and Chris Moyles (King Herod).


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