Though he was a rich man, an underrated singer in his own right, and the co-founder of Capitol Records, Johnny Mercer is, 34 years after his death, nowhere near as famous as the author of such brain-burrowing mid-century lyrics as “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “That Ol’ Black Magic,” “Satin Doll,” “Laura,” and “Moon River” really should be. Lyricists rarely get the respect composers do. Moreover, Mercer worked primarily in Hollywood, which in his day meant more money but less prestige than writing songs for Broadway. That’s show business.
“Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s on Me” suffers slightly from the ill-fitting inclusion of some new material featuring super jazz fan and executive producer Clint Eastwood chatting with film composer John Williams and others, but overall, this TCM documentary written by Ken Barnes and directed by Bruce Ricker is a massively engaging documentary look at Mercer’s often surprising career. The 90-minute film efficiently covers his personal riches-to-(not quite)-rags-to-greater-riches story and tumultuous personal life, including a lifelong affair with Judy Garland, but wisely focuses on the music and takes full advantage of some priceless archival footage. Performances and interviews featuring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Julie Andrews, Blake Edwards, Ray Charles, a young Barbara Streisand, a middle-aged Bono, and new performances by Jamie Cullum, Dr. John and others (seen in their entirety on the DVD bonus disc), beautifully illustrate Mercer’s gifts and chart his extraordinary influence. An obvious labor of love, “The Dream’s On Me” is not exactly great filmmaking but it’s got great taste and is a must for fans of great popular music.
A funny thing happened this decade — the once dying genre of live-action movie musicals seems to have returned to the movie repertoire. As the decade closes, I can think of exactly two major westerns, but I keep remembering musicals that I should consider for this piece (including the mostly well-regarded French musical “Love Songs,” which I forgot to see before writing this, je suis désolé).
As a lifelong fan and a nearly lifelong tough critic of musicals, I love most of these films. However, this list is not so much a traditional “best of” and I’ve included one choice I definitely don’t like. (It won’t be hard to guess which.) These are musicals that I think contributed to the development of this polarizing and hard to pull off genre. They don’t hark back to times gone by or try to recapture a past glory that will never return, but actually take us into the future. That’s important now that musicals seem to have a future.
“Dancer in the Dark” (2000)
Earlier this year, the brilliant but often irritating Danish director Lars von Trier shocked hard-to-shock European festival audiences with graphic sexual violence in “Antichrist.” Back in 2000, all he needed to divide audiences was some really intense melodrama and an approach to making dark musicals partially borrowed from TV creator Dennis Potter (“Pennies from Heaven,” “The Singing Detective”).
Featuring a literally once-in-a-lifetime lead performance by singer-songwriter Björk as a young mother ready to sacrifice everything to save her son’s failing eyesight, “Dancer in the Dark” is maybe the most emotionally potent story of parental love I’ve ever seen. As a musical, it’s strange and arresting.
Like the Potter television shows and movies and “Chicago,” further down the list, the musical numbers take place in the mind of the lead character. In this case, however, it is particularly poignant as our heroine is a fan of musicals who, though she is gradually going blind, is attempting to appear in a community theater production of “The Sound of Music.” Below, she musically confesses her situation to a smitten Peter Stormare (yes, the guy from “Fargo”). Lumberjacks or not, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” sure seems like a long time ago.
Moulin Rouge” (2001)
As the non-musical Pixar films became the dominant template for animation and the musical form lost its last apparent movie bastion, big studios began to experiment with musicals starring humans. Unfortunately for me, the first and still one of the most popular of this decade’s high profile film musicals was Baz Luhrmann’s beautifully shot, amazingly designed, dull-witted, and over-edited “Moulin Rouge.”
Yes, this musical fan is not a fan of the musical that’s been credited with resurrecting the genre. Why? A couple of sequences work, but on the whole I expect the funny parts of a movie to make me laugh and, even more important, I like to see the movies I’m seeing. As far as I can tell, Luhrmann simply doesn’t have the confidence in this film to allow us time to view the arresting images he’s worked so hard to craft, nor does he permit time to actually see the hard work his dancers and actors put in. Editor Jil Bilcock is expected to do all the performing instead.
As for what Luhrmann and his arrangers did with the various classic songs they threw into a musical Cuisinart, the less I say about it the better. At the risk of sounding like a fogey (or a member of an 18th century Austrian court), too many notes. Way, way, way, too many notes. See if you disagree.
In honor of the late comedy writer, below is a trailer for his first motion picture credit, the 1962 comedy “The Notorious Landlady.” Though this piece of movie advertising is about as leering and puerile as “Mad Men” era trailers can get, this appears to be a decent little movie from veteran director Richard Quine and two writers very much on the way up: Gelbart and Blake Edwards (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Pink Panther,” etc.). Having Kim Novak (“Vertigo“), Jack Lemmon, and Fred Astaire in it probably doesn’t hurt either.
A few items worthy of your attention this evening.
* A new study predicts that the Redbox video kiosks will be taking over 30% of the DVD market before the end of 2010. There’s no stopping this and you can’t really argue with success, but I fear this will only narrow the already narrow marketing of films further, as the kiosks can only rent a very limited of inevitably mostly recent and blockbuster titles. It’s really the opposite of Netflix, which is a godsend for those who want to broaden their movie/TV horizons.
* Also via The Autuers/Mr. Hudson’s invaluable Twitter feed, comes this interesting comparison of the late John Hughes and the even later master of forties screwball comedy, Preston Sturges. I personally would never really compare the two but it is slightly spooky that they both died on August 6th and were almost the same age, and there were some similarities to their respective careers, but not to their sensibilities. Of course, that also happens to be the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan and my sister’s birthday, draw whatever connections you want. (My sister is, however, way nicer than an atom bomb or a writer-director’s untimely death.) I will say that, to me, Sturges movies are much, much funnier and a lot more interesting.
But it’s still high time I take a look around the online petri dish that has nurtured me for so long…
* Jesus of film geek cool Dennis Cozzalio has a nifty conversation with director Joe Dante (“Gremlins,” “Piranha,” “Rock ‘n Roll High School,” “The Howling,” etc.) whose doing some ultra film-geek stuff in L.A. while finishing up his lowish budget 3-D horror film, “The Hole.”
* Kimberly Lindbergs reviews the new biography of Hal Ashby (“Harold and Maude,” “Being There”) whose fandom is definitely growing.
* There’ll be more posts like this to come, but I’ll wrap up with the amazing Self Styled Siren‘s discovery a couple of week’s back of a truly great YouTube clip featuring Fred Astaire dancing and singing a song now practically owned by Frank Sinatra. If Frank was the ultimate saloon singer, Fred was the ultimate urbane hoofer. And he was an underrated singer and actor as well.
Though the Siren has problems embedding, I can present it to you directly here. Even if you think you hate or have no interest in musicals, check this one out, by the time Fred starts dancing at 2:45, I promise you won’t be sorry. (The video, by the way, runs a bit long. Feel free to click away after Fred finally ambles out of the bar. Also, note that he tells humorist-turned-actor Robert Benchley that he plans to walk, not drive, home — which is not the way the song’s usually interpreted. That’s Astaire: class through and through.)