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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How biopics lost the plot

By Norman Lebrecht / September 18, 2004

One late morning in the merry Nineties, I got a call from a friend in New York. "Get on a flight to Vienna," he cried. "I’ve got us both parts."

I didn’t need to ask which movie. Bruce Beresford, the Australian director, was shooting a life of the seductress Alma Mahler and every eligible Mahlerian the world over was striving, rimless specs in hand, to get onto the set and step in if Jonathan Pryce broke a leg or muffed his lines as the great composer. My friend had landed us a pair of cameos in an orgy scene. I declined; he wound up, I think, on the cutting-room floor.

The movie, Bride of the Wind, was a washout. Derisively reviewed in the US, it never reached Europe (Austria excepted), even on DVD. My withdrawal from the orgy was due less to prudishness than to an advance reading of the script. A clunking of cliches in a stew of anachronisms, it reflected little of the mutual torment of the Mahler marriage, the furnace of five shattering symphonies. Apart from a ready-made soundtrack, there seemed to be no more reason to make a film about the Mahlers of old Vienna than about the Millers of modern-day Milwaukee. Except, and this is a big except, that the project fitted a custom-built production category.

The composer biopic is a long-established Hollywood niche, combining heart warming love story with feelgood culture. The original formula was foolproof: major artist suffers block, meets muse, achieves immortality, fadeup music. Its heyday was the mid-Forties. Charles Vidor set the tone with A Song to Remember (1945), a life of Chopin with Merle Oberon as George Sand and Cornel Wilde as the sickly Pole. Song of Love two years later had Katharine Hepburn as Clara Schumann and Robert Walker as the lovestruck young Brahms. Even when Vidor miscast Dirk Bogarde as Franz Liszt in Song without End (1960), he still won an Oscar for best musical arrangement. You couldn't lose with a biopic. American composers were best at the home box office. Rhapsody in Blue (1945) offered a sanitised version of the sex life of George Gershwin (played by Robert Alda). Night and Day, months later, had Cary Grant as Cole Porter pretending to be a dutiful husband. In Till the Clouds Roll By, Robert Walker (fresh from Brahms) was Jerome Kern. Lovely tunes, happy ending, that’s entertainment. Or was.

The genre came unstuck with Amadeus (1984), a London stage play which, embracing post-modern irony, portrayed Mozart as a high-pitched, infantile coprophiliac. Immortal Beloved, a decade later, claimed to show "the genius behind the music, the madness behind the man, the untold love story of Ludwig van Beethoven". The London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Georg Solti struck soundtrack paydirt, but there was more Beethoven in Clockwork Orange than in this glossy fancification of half-facts and rumour, the biopic grown desperate.

Now, ten years on, we have De-Lovely, opening on 1 October. A second take on Night and Day, it promises to tell the truth about Cole Porter - the story they could not show in 1946, although it was never much of a secret. Porter was the odd man out among Broadway composers. The others were Jewish and straight; he was Wasp and gay. And happily married.

The son of the richest man in Indiana, Porter was living the high life in Paris when he met and married a wealthy Kentucky divorcee, Linda Lee Thomas, evidently for love and avowedly not for lust. Linda turned a blind eye to Cole's boyfriends, relishing the run of hits that followed their union. She died in 1954 and his final years were filled with remorse.

The film’s premise is that Linda was Cole's muse; without her, he was mute. This may be as true as any other media simplification, but the movie has a larger case to make. Marriage, it argues, need not be defined by sex or procreation: it can take many forms, straight or gay. It’s the little things we do together that make perfect relationships.

Morally neutral – neutered even, since we never see Cole in a clinch withboys - Irving Winkler's film strikes a welcome note of sanity in a tabloid environment that shrieks hypocritical outrage over celebrity sex. It strives to be a biopic for grown-ups, plainspoken and unjudgemental, allowing audiences to make up their own minds about the complicated domestic life of an unfathomably gifted composer.

But, just as there is no such thing in Hollywood as a free lunch, so there are no biopics that depart from format: he fell in love, therefore he composed. And that's a good thing, right? Make sure everyone knows how famous he was.

The script creaks with reminders. ‘I’m Irving Berlin.’ - ‘It’s an honour to be interrupted by America’s greatest composer.’ ‘Isn’t that Diaghilev?’ -‘There go his boys from the Ballets Russes.’

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, worried that its customers have never heard of Berlin or Diaghilev, provides grade-two footnotes. If this is meant to be a biopic for adults, it must be for Alzheimer sufferers.

Music is the movie's saving grace, beginning with the beguine and ending when it's time to say goodbye. Reviving an early biopic device, De-Lovely wheels on a galaxy of stars to deliver the evergreens - Mick Hucknall in I Love You, Diana Krall for Just One of Those Things and cheeky Robbie Williams, sounding less like Frank Sinatra than Norman Wisdom, in the immortal title track. Kevin Kline passes intermittently for Cole Porter. Jonathan Pryce, fresh from his Mahler debacle, plays his sidekick.

The more wonderful the music, the more it underscores the artistic inadequacy - not just in this movie but in every screen attempt to ascribe genius to biographical incident. Genius is, by definition, random and unboxable. Any producer who claims to know how Mozart came to write Cosi fan tutte or Cole Porter Kiss Me Kate deserves to be dePorsched. The composer biopic originally touched a common nerve in a generation eager for moral uplift and elinghtenment. In our 21st century turpitude, it has lost both the plot and any useful purpose.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001