Friday, April 17, 2009

De-Lovely (2004)

It's not really an accident that I'm reviewing De-Lovely, a music biopic, so soon after reviewing Cadillac Records, a music biopic. When I put that in my queue, Netflix thought I'd like this one too. I don't know if that makes Netflix really dumb (how many people are into both gritty gutbucket blues and sophisticated ironical showtunes?) or really smart (because in fact I did enjoy them both).

I enjoyed this for a couple of reasons. First, it's a reasonably well-made movie, with a nice focus on a complex relationship, Cole Porter's with his wife Linda. In the end I'm not sure we really understand why Cole and Linda got together or stayed together, but its an unsurety that rings true: in the end I think the only people who understand why a couple stays together are the couple themselves. The movie made me believe their relationship, which is more important than understanding it, maybe.

Second, it exposed me to a lot of great Cole Porter songs, many for the first time. I'll admit that this kind of music is a real blind spot for me (see parenthetical remark #1 above), but I'm always up for a good melody, and Cole Porter had 'em. With captivating lyrics to boot. I'm not going to be able to say anything original about him at this point, but I second what everybody else says.

Curiously, I found the movie's treatment of its songs to suffer from the same flaw that Cadillac Records' did. I say curiously, because on the surface it seems to take the opposite approach. Instead of having the actors sing (with the exception of Kevin Kline, who really can sing), they had professional singers do the job.

The artists in De-Lovely have the advantage in that they're not competing against defining recordings of these songs - many masterful recordings have been made of Porter's songs, obviously, but the songs themselves have their own identity as Cole Porter compositions. They're not as closely identified with any one artist as "I'd Rather Go Blind" is with Etta James. And I don't have a problem with contemporary singers updating songs from that period; I have a couple of the Red Hot + discs and really like them. And (final disclaimer) I don't think the musical performances in this film are all that bad per se (Sheryl Crow's is suprisingly good, Alanis Morissette's is predictably awful, Natalie Cole's is predictably good, and Elvis Costello's is surprisingly weak, considering that he basically owns "Love For Sale" as far as I'm concerned).

It's just that the movie does a really good job of immersing you in the period, and then a familiar contemporary pop singer comes on and reminds you that it's 2009 and you're sitting in your living room watching a movie. Their singing styles are too far removed from what would have been acceptable for the period - from what Porter would have imagined his songs sounding like. The result is that we come away with a clear vision of the man and his relationships, but a fairly hazy view of his musical aesthetic.

The thing films can do for music is provide the context in which the music makes sense. The best music films give you that context, and then give you the music: it's a complete circuit. O Brother Where Art Thou? perfectly and lovingly creates the world that lives inside country blues and proto-bluegrass from the '30s, and then gives you loving recreations of that music, and sometimes the originals. I'm Not There gives you the worlds Bob Dylan imagines in his songs, and the Bob Dylan that those songs make you imagine. These are what music movies should be.

Cadillac Records did a good job of recreating the time and place that conditioned Chess blues. De-Lovely does a good job of imagining the life of the composer. But neither film gives you much in the way of the actual music that resulted from these contexts. We're primed and left hanging, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphors.

De-Lovely ends with a recording of Porter himself singing "You're The Top," and it's a terrible shock. Granted, he isn't thought of as having been a great singer in the first place, but the style he's singing in, the way he enunciates his lyrics, his tonality, is too far removed from contemporary musical aesthetics for the viewer/listener to enjoy without some preparation. And, crucially, little we've seen or heard over the previous two hours has prepared us for it. Now imagine a film that takes us, those of us who are uninitiated in the musical values of the '20s and '30s, and woos us so that by the end, we can hear the beauty and vitality in Porter's performance. So that it makes sense to us musically.

That's what I want from a music movie.

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