1987, Santa Monica. Chet Baker is weathered and worn. Filmed in black and white in the back of a convertible at night, framed by a pair of lovely young models, with street lights and headlights catching his features in a slash or a flash, his once smooth cheeks are leathery with age beyond his years and his face is sinking in to his skull as if his youth was eaten away from within.
1953, Los Angeles. The contact sheets of William Claxton’s photos from a recording session picks Chet Baker out of the ensemble. Holding his trumpet with an easy nonchalance, hanging with a laid-back presence of knowing he belongs, with eyes as soulful as James Dean and hair like Elvis Presley and cheekbones that look carved by Michelangelo, Baker is the young Adonis of cool jazz.
“He was bad, he was trouble and he was beautiful,” remarks a former lover, one of many tossed overboard to the choppy waters of his life. In the lens of Bruce Weber’s documentary, however, he’s still beautiful, a survivor wearing the scars of a turbulent life to a fashion shoot, the stark black and white picking out every scuff and wrinkle like it was earned. What we first see as a “seamy looking drugstore cowboy-cum-derelict,” in the words of Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, takes on a ravaged grace through the course of Let’s Get Lost. In part that’s due to the hushed spell of his singing voice on ballads from the American songbook but mostly it’s because of Weber’s gaze.
Buddy Holly died young, long before he was finished making his creative contribution to the fledgling rock genre and before the movies had a chance to try him out as a screen performer. So instead of Buddy on the big screen, we have Gary Busey playing the musical hipster from the Bible-belt culture of Lubbock, Texas in The Buddy Holly Story (Twilight Time, Blu-ray). This 1978 biopic is almost square in its straightforward storytelling yet utterly engaging and oddly expressive of the creative spirit from an unlikely rebel. This is one of my favorite rock biopics of all time and decades later I still prefer it to the more flamboyant and self-conscious portraits of musical legends that have become the fashion. This is so square that it’s hip!
Busey’s gangly physicality, crooked, toothy smiles, and stage intensity brings Holly to life as both an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll rebel (he was first rock star to wear glasses onstage and in publicity shots) and an original voice in pop music. Off stage he’s the sweet, goofy, slightly odd boy next door with a gift for music, and onstage he turns every performance into an act of creation, as if each song is reborn when played for each new audience. Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith provide solid back-up as bass man Jesse and drummer Ray Bob, fictionalized versions of the original Crickets (the origin of their name may be apocryphal but it is nonetheless a delightful scene) and Conrad Janis (of Mork and Mindy) is another fictional creation loosely inspired by Norman Petty, a record executive who chooses to back the instincts of this young man from Lubbock.
Director Steve Rash stumbled with his next film, the tone-deaf comedy Under the Rainbow, and never really recovered (lately he’s been relegated to direct-to-disc sequels) but on The Buddy Holly Story, which was his debut feature, his instincts and his execution are dead on. He eschews both reverence and show-biz melodrama for a low-key evocation of late-1950s culture and a no-nonsense peek into the workings of the music business and the practical approach that Holly took to creating the distinctive sound of his records. This isn’t genius springing fully formed from the artist like a wellspring but ideas developed and worked over by a professional devoted to his art. It may be the most unaffected biography of a musical great ever made, certainly one of the few that acknowledges the hard work and commitment necessary to creating music. It earned Busey his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor and reminds us that before he became a celebrity train wreck and reality TV joke, Busey was a fine actor who had at least one brilliant performance in his long career.
The musical recreation of Holly’s hits and sound is superb, from Busey’s Texas twang to the band thumping away behind a driving guitar creating both more sound and more melody than you thought possible from a single electric instrument. The musical adaptation earned the film its only Academy Award and is isolated on separate audio track on the Blu-ray debut, which is a trademark feature of Twilight Time releases put to a slightly different emphasis this time around. It also features commentary by director Steve Rash and star Gary Busey carried over from the old DVD release, the trailer, and an eight-page booklet with a new essay by Julie Kirgo. It is limited to 3000 copies and available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
The rock movie was never the same after A Hard Day’s Night opened 50 years ago, on July 6, 1964. The Beatles black-and-white comedy, which is being re-released in theaters for the anniversary, immediately became the cheekiest, wittiest, most inventive film in the then-fledgling rock and roll movie genre.
Before A Hard Day’s Night, there were two basic approaches to the rock movie. Neither demanded much in the way of creativity. There was the Elvis model, where you cast a pop star in a dramatic or comic role and shoehorned a few songs between the scripted scenes, and the “Beach Party” model, where singers and bands simply dropped into a movie to perform a number and then quickly disappeared.
A Hard Day’s Night was something different. The Beatles played themselves, in a tongue-in-cheek fantasy of a day-in-the-life of the band. They were real and unreal at the same time, goofing their way through the world as a way of dealing with the insanity of superstardom, and they were likable and funny and just a little impertinent. If this isn’t how they were in real life, it’s how we wanted them to be.
The 1936 production of Show Boat is the second version of the story based on Edna Ferber’s novel (the 1929 version was in fact shot as a silent adaptation of the original novel and hastily reworked to include some of the show’s songs as a part-talkie release) and still the best. Irene Dunne, who had been discovered by Hollywood talent agents while performing in a road show version of the stage musical, returns to the role of Magnolia, the dreamy daughter of Cap’n Andy (Charles Winninger), the captain and proprietor of the floating paddlewheel playhouse. She plays out her romantic fantasies in real life when she falls for riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) and, after a flirtation by duet, she takes the stage with him as her leading man, against the wishes of a mother who wants to keep her far away from the “wicked stage” of show business. Co-star Helen Morgan (in her final film role) reprises her role in the original Broadway production and Paul Robeson reprises the part he created in the London version, which gives the film documentary gravity as well as dramatic power. Dunne, with her trilling laugh and easy charm, is wonderful as the earnest Magnolia and Jones, most famous as the bland romantic lead of a couple of Marx Brothers comedies, shows more sand and strength in the role of the romantic gambler than in any other of his film performances, but Robeson and Morgan are transcendent.
Magnolia’s story is one of romantic dreams soured by the reality of a flawed man: Gaylord, who coaxes her off the stage and drags her along his itinerate life as a travelling gambler, starting out in high living splendor and then sinking into poverty and neglect. You could say that the song “Can Help Loving that Man” captures the theme of the whole show: love doesn’t necessarily conquer all but that doesn’t stop women from falling in love with unreliable men (or, in the case of the welcoming and warm Cap’n Andy, a sour, unforgiving wife). It’s played out as triumphant drama, comic lament, and tragedy, the latter in the supporting story of the show’s original star player Julie (Morgan), who is forced off the stage and out of the company by the local authorities after they are informed that she is part negro. The legal measure is “more than a drop” of Negro blood and Julie’s husband philandering husband uses the letter of the law to save her from the mob in a moving act of devotion. It is the last we see of him. Unreliable at the best of times, he finally abandons Julie, who ultimately drifts back into Magnolia’s story for a moving sacrifice.
Mother Wore Tights (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is the kind of film that used to be a staple of catalog DVD releases: a bouncy musical with superstar of classic Hollywood carrying it by force of personality and energy. Betty Grable was one of the top box office stars of the day and the reigning queen of Fox thanks to her lightweight Technicolor musical romps and Mother Wore Tights, a vaudeville romance filled with musical numbers, corny comedy and sentimental family drama, was one of the biggest hits of her career. It also launched the career of Dan Dailey, who made the picture as his first film back from World War II. It showcased his strengths as a song and dance man but also as a wise guy with heart and a street-smart guy with a sentimental streak. It was the first of four movies that Grable and Dailey made together and their most successful.
Grable is the small-town girl who stumbles into the chorus of a vaudeville theater and Dailey is the show’s star act, a dancer and singer of novelty numbers. Of course, a professional partnership becomes personal and soon they have two girls and their journey of parenthood ends up with a daughter (Mona Freeman) whose private school education results in a certain snobbiness that makes her embarrassed to reveal her parents’ vaudeville roots to the social register of her classmates. So, you know, a lesson is in order, and it comes in the form of song and dance. Where Fred and Ginger were elegance in motion, Grable and Dailey are old-school hoofers, and maybe that’s part of the appeal. They have the moves but they also have a common touch and an easy likability. That trumps the slightness of the story. The film won an Oscar for its score (by Alfred Newman, the Fox house composer) and was nominated for its color cinematography and the original song “You Do.” The disc looks terrific—it’s possible that it was originally prepared for a regular DVD release and then shuttled off the Archives line as disc sales fell off—mastered from a great print with vivid color.
Sonja Henie was another Fox musical star, though she was even more specialized. Henie was a three-time Olympic champion skater who went pro in 1936 and signed a contract with 20th Century Fox to do musicals with ice-skating numbers. Six of her eight Fox films have been recently released on the Archives line, starting with her Fox debut One in a Million (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives), where Zanuck surrounded her with a strong cast including Adolphe Menjou, Jean Hersholt, Don Ameche, and The Ritz Brothers. She’s a Swiss innkeeper’s daughter training for the Olympics and Menjou is a showman who wants to launch her in show business, which would negate her amateur status. Producer Darryl Zanuck put a lot of money behind this one to launch her in style and the film shows off the budget with some big production numbers. The transfer is adequate, from a vault print with okay black and white contrast.
In Hollywood of the early 1930s, no one epitomized the romantic charm of France and continental sophistication of Paris better than Maurice Chevalier. The popular singer and nightclub entertainer had made his American film debut in the early sound era, where his boulevardier persona and lilting accent helped make him a major star in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty musical comedies.
But Chevalier was getting tired of playing what he called “the same old fellow,” the seductive Frenchman sweeping women off their feet and into bed with a smile and wink, and he was battling Irving Thalberg over his MGM assignments when Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck offered him the lead in Folies Bergre de Paris (1935), a musical comedy that moves from the Paris stage to the world of high society and high finance and back. Zanuck had negotiated the film rights for the legendary Paris show palace and developed the film (based on the play The Red Cat) for Charles Boyer. When Boyer declined, Chevalier took the part.
The film offered Chevalier the opportunity to play two different roles: Folies Bergre headliner Eugene Charlier, a singer famed for his impersonation of Parisian millionaire Baron Fernand Cassini, and the banker and notorious womanizer Cassini himself. British beauty Merle Oberon (in one of her earliest American films) co-stars as Cassini’s wife in “the perfect modern marriage” (they each go their own way) and Ann Sothern is Charlier’s pathologically jealous girlfriend. The two men flirt with one another’s partners, of course, but the play of mistaken and swapped identities gets comically complicated as identities are swapped back and forth and the women use the confusion to play their own games.
The choreography by Dave Gould is right out of the Busby Berkeley playbook, with sets that expand back from the proscenium arch of the physical stage into impossibly epic spaces, dancers that multiply into small armies, overhead cameras that look down on a chorus forming elaborate geometric patterns, and increasingly abstract and surreal sets. The opening number sends Chevalier dancing through a downpour that covers half the stage, and the film ends with the Academy Award-winning “Straw Hat” number, an elaborate set piece built around Chevalier’s trademark boater hat, which becomes the basis for crazy props and massive sets inspired by the texture of the simple straw hat.
Having a Wild Weekend (Warner Archive), the Dave Clark Five’s answer to “A Hard Day’s Night,” has a title that suggests the knock-about fun and goofy banter of The Beatles on film. To some extent you’ll find that here. The five boys live in what appears to be, at various times, an old church, an abandoned farmhouse, a run-down manor, and a rummage sale in a school gymnasium (thus the trampoline in the middle of the room), but instead of playing music, they play stunt men and extras in a beef industry ad campaign branded “Meat for Go,” which are conspicuously absent of any actual meat in the ads. What the ads seem to sell is the blond charm of poster girl Dinah (Barbara Ferris) and the puckish spirit of five mod young men leaping goofily around her.
Dave Clark is the ostensible lead as Steve, one of the stunt men and the only member of quintet to get something approaching a distinctive character (the other four boys goof around the margins), and he kicks off the story by driving off the commercial in a sports car with a willing Dinah. She’s the bubbly starlet as free spirit next to Clark’s brooding would-be rebel Steve, but Clark has, shall we say, a deficit of screen presence, let alone personality or charisma. Ferris effortlessly dominates by sheer personality and energy. Maybe that’s why Dave Clark never made another film.
Or maybe it’s because “Having a Wild Weekend” is not the happy-go-lucky romp the gag-laden opening promises.
Little Shop Of Horrors: The Director’s Cut (Warner), the first non-Muppet film directed by Frank Oz, is the big-screen adaptation of the doo-wop Broadway musical about a baritone man-eating plant spun from Roger Corman’s comic horror quickie. In other words, a glossy big budget remake of a zero-budget programmer. You’d think with such a legacy it just wouldn’t work, but the mix of bouncy music, over-saturated color, gee-whiz 1950s parodies and a gloriously phony set recalling the glory days of MGM musicals all comes together into a sly little production that hits all the right notes.
The film was released with a new, happy ending, after terrible audience response to the hilariously apocalyptic original finale that killed off the heroes and set the plants on a rampage over the Earth right out of “King Kong,” “Godzilla,” “The Day of the Triffids,” and dozens of classic invasion films and giant monster romps. This new edition presents both the theatrical version and the original director’s cut, which is wilder than you ever imagined. (That ending was briefly available in a B&W workprint version on a rare disc that was pulled from stores almost immediately; this is in full color and mastered for this release.)
Also includes the new featurette “Frank Oz and Little Shop of Horrors: Director’s Cut,” featuring interviews with Oz and special effects supervisor Richard Conway, and new commentary by Frank Oz on the 20-minute alternate ending, in addition to the supplements carried over from the earlier DVD release: commentary by Frank Oz on the theatrical cut, a light making-of featurette, and outtakes and deleted scenes with optional commentary. Blu-ray and DVD, with a 36-page booklet packaging for the Blu-ray edition.
Rock of Ages (Warner) is both the apogee and the nadir of jukebox rock musicals, a collection of show business clichés wrapped in iconic heavy metal /eighties power pop anthems and delivered via movie star karaoke. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta are the ostensible leads here, the gorgeous young hopefuls who work on the Sunset Strip in hopes of breaking into the music business, and they play their roles with earnest intent and dull inevitability. The veteran cast understands the material better, playing it both for oversized melodrama and knowing parody, with Tom Cruise pretty much keeping it aloft with his drugged up, oversexed, washed up arena rocker strutting through the ruins of the hair band culture.
It’s as thin a book as a jukebox musical ever had and pumping it up with stars only shows how little substance they have to work with and how poorly the songs work as reflections of the story. And as executed by director Adam Shankman, this paean to the energy of rock and sex against the forces of repression of the moral police (as represented by Catherine Zeta-Jones) makes for a rather restrained R-rated movie trying to appeal to the post-“Glee” musical fan. It’s so timid that it can’t even commit to a gay love story without resorting to a broad lampoon of romantic clichés, meanwhile playing it straight while trying to convince us that the savior of rock and roll is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, and Paul Giamatti co-star.
Quadrophenia (Criterion), the 1979 film of Pete Townsend’s landmark rock opera (originally performed by The Who) about teen rebellion and alienation in 1965 London hit the screen under the direction of Franc Roddam with Phil Daniels as the restless, Vespa-riding Jimmy, a Mod in the rock and roll culture wars. The portrait of early sixties Britain, of young adults looking to carve out their own identity distinct from the glum middle class dullness of their parents, and of a music explosion that becomes part of their lives, is astounding, and the desperation of Jimmy’s dive into this vivid but undefined culture reverberates to this day. “I don’t wanna be like everybody else. That’s why I’m a mod, see?” Sting is memorable as the charismatic Mod leader with a working class secret, future Brit star Ray Winstone is a former mate turned rival rocker, and Timothy Spall has a small role as a fellow working stiff.
It’s not really a musical as much as a rough and ready drama inspired by the story suggested in the rock opera (though the Who’s music underscores the film quite nicely), and it has aged very well over the years. This entire last act is set to the final side of the Who’s album, a brilliant work of rock scoring that suggests the restless, frustrated impulses of confused youth, shouted out in Roger Daltry’s singing and pounded into urgency by Keith Moon’s drumming, as Townsend’s music and lyrics merge into a transcendent convergence of themes and strangled cries of identity. Roddam finds an evocative dramatic translation of the suggestions in Townsend’s lyrics and sends the film off with images as resonant as the music. Can you see the real me? Well, can you?
Singin’ in the Rain: Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner) is arguably the greatest American musical ever made. It’s certainly one of the most fun, a knockabout look of the transition from silent to sound movies: lousy history but a blast of singing, dancing, romancing energy and color.
Gene Kelly is the vaudeville schlub turned movie stuntman and finally matinee idol who falls in love with girl-next-door extra Debbie Reynolds, much to the slow-burn anger of leading lady Jean Hagen (in a catty performance with a nasal Brooklyn screech). His introduction is brilliant and the film goofs on his rise to stardom twice, first in a glib radio address with flashback gag punchlines, then again in a glorious set piece that reworks the story as a dance/ballet. Donald O’Conner literally climbs the walls in the show-stopping acrobatic dance number “Make ’Em Laugh” and Kelly stomps, slides, and taps through the rain-slicked studio streets in the title number. Why? Because he’s gotta dance!
The Blu-ray features the new feature-length documentary “Singin’ in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation” plus the commentary track from the previous DVD special edition featuring director Stanley Donen, actors Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, and Kathleen Freeman, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Baz Luhrmann (the director of “Moulin Rouge”), and film historian Rudy Behlmer, edited together as a kind of audio documentary in its own right running along with the film.
Ring-A-Ding Rhythm (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is a 1962 British music performance film originally titled “It’s a Trad, Dad” (you can see why they retitled for the U.S.). The first feature by American-born but British-based Richard Lester (who went on to redefine the rock movie with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help”) is basically a succession of performances connected by the thinnest of plots: a couple of teenagers defy a ban on jazz by recruiting bands for a big concert. And by jazz, I mean the traditional Dixieland style that had a big youth following in Britain in the early sixties: modern sixties youth listening to music that was new during prohibition. Can you believe those starchy adults and parents are still horrified? Dropped in with the dozens of trad jazz acts (including Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen and the funky Temperance Seven) are a handful of pop and rock performances by the likes of Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, Gene Vincent, and Britain’s Helen Shapiro, who also plays one of the leads.
This is a prime example of a director making something out of nothing. Handed a script that does little more than stitch together a succession of musical performances, Lester doodles in the margins, dropping oddball, surreal gags between the numbers and sometimes during the performances. The script is credited to producer Milton Subotsky but the cheeky asides and slapstick flourishes are clearly from the mind of Lester, who came to the film from a series of collaborations with Peter Sellers. It’s not that Lester makes anything particularly memorable from it all, but that his light touch and whimsical attitude keeps it buoyant and bouncy and far more engaging than you have any right to expect.
Also from Britain is Just For Fun (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), another Subotsky production with a nominal plot stitching together performances by a more familiar line-up of pop performers, including Bobby Vee (singing “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”), The Crickets, Freddy Cannon, The Tremeloes, The Tornados, and a batch of other British acts. Both of these, by the way, are the Amicus, before the company redefined itself as Britain’s trashier, second-tier house of horror.