Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Two Minnelli Musicals

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2006)

I recently watched two musicals by one of the genre’s great directors, Vincente Minnelli: The Band Wagon and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. These are two films I’ve watched many times – particularly The Band Wagon, which I sometimes think belongs in the list of my ten favourite films. A genuine classic – although I’m not sure it has the profile it should – it stars Fred Astaire as a Fred Astaire-type movie star now past his peak, who comes to Broadway to star in a “modern version of Faust,” mounted by a pretentious hot director (Jack Buchanan). The play is an instant flop, and Astaire then takes charge, transforming the show into something light and breezy, which is duly a hit. He also gets the girl, played by Cyd Charisse.

The Band Wagon

The film, made in 1953, has some of the most sublime musical numbers ever filmed – Shine On Your Shoes, Triplets, Dancing In The Dark and the iconic That’s Entertainment. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen overall technique that’s so perfectly aligned with the music. And the somewhat self-referential script, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, is outright funny. I don’t have a thing to say against it. Although the more I watch it, I do speculate about some of its structural quirks.

For example, the start of the movie seems somewhat over-emphatic in establishing Astaire’s diminished status, including an auction of his personal memorabilia that fails to raise any bids, a derogatory overheard conversation on a train, and a low-key welcome for him at Grand Central Station (contrasted with the adulation for Ava Gardner, who briefly plays herself). Astaire was always a rather clipped personality who seemed to find his redemption in dance, and The Band Wagon plays that up all the way. Matching him against Charisse, who is utterly ravishing when she dances but also somewhat frosty at other times, the film conveys a definite sense of two emotionally fraught characters, who can find their way to each other, to anyone, only through pure performance.

To highlight this, the film’s lengthy closing stretch has almost no dialogue – it’s a cascade of musical numbers (Scorsese tried something similar years later in New York, New York). And when in the final scene Charisse finally tells Astaire that she wants to be with him, she does it in the most displaced fashion possible, via a metaphorical speech about the show and how it’s going to run forever, delivered in front of the entire cast – their resulting kiss lasts only a few seconds before the others pull them into a reprise of That’s Entertainment. Plainly, whatever they may consummate offstage will never be as enveloping as their nightly pairing in the delirious Girl Hunt ballet.

Melancholy Baby

To some extent, these oddities are merely a mark of the genre, but over time I’ve come to think of The Band Wagon as a particularly knowing and acute expression of them. The film’s offstage restraint, its lack of the kind of boisterous happiness that characterizes, say Singin’ In The Rain, comes to seem very close to melancholy, even at the moment of its greatest triumph. Maybe this is partly Minnelli’s sense of the end of an era – he would make no more musicals until Gigi five years later, and Astaire had only a few left in him.

After Gigi, Minnelli’s next musical was On A Clear Day.. in 1970 (by then he hadn’t directed anything at all since The Sandpiper in 1965). The film had the hottest young musical star of the age, Barbra Streisand, who'd already worked with William Wyler and Gene Kelly in Funny Girl and Hello Dolly, and thus with the Minnelli hat-trick seemed to carry potential for bringing an entire genre and generation back to life. Based on a not particularly successful Broadway production by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, the film co-stars Yves Montand as the psychiatrist and college lecturer who treats Streisand’s Daisy Gamble via hypnosis for compulsive smoking, and finds out she’s the reincarnation of a 19th century English psychic, He falls in love with the psychic, while finding the modern Daisy merely enervating.

On A Clear Day is as ragged as The Band Wagon is pristine. Just on a basic level, the film does not seem at all fluid or well controlled. Old-style studio sets (Montand’s office is more spacious and glamorous than the average penthouse) mingle with bland location shooting. Streisand is allowed to be too much her fizzy self as Daisy, and plays too much the great lady in the flashbacks. Montand seems entirely out of place, and his accent is often downright incoherent (I’ve puzzled for years over some of his lines). The film shows hints of a serious interest in reincarnation, but never makes it gel.

On A Clear Day...

Most fascinating by far is its portrayal of conflicting cultures. At one point, the college students mount a demonstration in support of Montand’s experiments – this at a time when student unrest was a very active and prominent commodity. The movie usually looks like classic Hollywood, but then seems at times to aspire to be a cousin to Hair. Exhibit A in this: none other than Jack Nicholson, after Easy Rider but before Five Easy Pieces. He must surely have seemed hugely anomalous even at the time, let alone with the benefit of so much hindsight. What’s more – Nicholson probably gets the girl in the end (I say probably because while it’s established that Montand will get her in a future reincarnation, her fate in the current one is unresolved).

For all this oddity, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever still belongs in that category of the kind of movies they don’t make any more, but you wish they did. You can’t imagine a musical of such manifest flaws and oddities being made now. Movies like Chicago and Rent are worked over to the point of airlessness – they’re conceived and designed and executed like battle plans. In my mind, On A Clear Day... works best when you sense Minnelli beside the camera, wrapped up in the performers, ventilating the material with the taste and elegance he’d been bringing to bear for thirty years. When his grasp loosens, the film flails or stagnates, and yet it’s a brand of chaos rooted in the times, in a desire for contemporariness.

It’s welcome that the genre has recently shown a bit more life, but rap and hip hop and silly teen stuff aside, I can hardly imagine a musical of even semi-serious intent being set in the modern day. Rent balked at making even minor updates to its early 90’s setting. The adverse consensus on that film’s strategy would be most useful if it prompted filmmakers of musicals to think more carefully about the relevance of their pictures. Instead though they’ll probably retreat into the past, and the movie musical will continue to be denied a meaningful next chapter.

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