[MetroActive Movies]

[ Movies Index | Show Times | Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Gwyneth Paltrow, Huey Lewis
Karaoke Package: Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis harmonize and reconcile to the music in 'Duets.'

Potter's Field

In Dennis Potter's dark musicals, the songs fail the singers--in 'Duets,' we are to blame for falling short of pop platitudes

By Richard von Busack

IN A KARAOKE BAR, people try to impersonate the voices of singers whose songs have meant a lot to them. Sometimes, they mock the grand gestures and vocal mannerisms of divas, especially if they can't hit the high or low notes, or they don't possess the intensity of the singers who made a song famous.

The best movies about the gap between the songs and the singers are the work of writer Dennis Potter. Potter's method can best be seen in the 1986 TV series The Singing Detective and in Pennies From Heaven (both the BBC-TV version in 1978 with Bob Hoskins, and the 1981 film with Steve Martin).

In both versions of Pennies From Heaven, Potter contrasts perky songs like "We're in the Money" with the bitterly hard business of finding a buck in the Depression. Those who saw the BBC version of Pennies From Heaven generally prefer the original. Still, the big-screen remake doesn't sweeten the plot, about a disillusioned, sometimes ruthless sheet-music peddler (Steve Martin, never better), his marital troubles with his dead-below-the-waist wife (Jessica Harper) and his new affair with a naive pickup (Bernadette Peters). The highlight of the film version is a sort of karaoke dance done by Martin and Peters to "Night and Day," from The Gay Divorcee, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appear on a large movie screen behind them.

Although it came out in 1981, the film was the culmination of 1970s cinematic rebellion--its last, best risk. Despite its failure at the box office, Pennies From Heaven represented the aesthetic success of a style that defeated Francis Coppola in One From the Heart and Martin Scorsese in New York, New York. In Pennies From Heaven (directed by Herbert Ross), we witness the marriage of the bleak, realistic sensibility of 1970s films with the technical brilliance of the classic Hollywood musical.

The notion of characters breaking into song in the middle of life's reversals--musical tragedy, it could be called--is also the style for Lars von Trier's upcoming Dancing in the Dark. In the Cannes film festival hit, Bjørk plays an oppressed factory worker with a vivid fantasy life straight out of the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s.

Earlier this year, Love's Labour's Lost also tried to recapture the MGM musical with Technicolor costumes and deliberately artificial sound stages. Perhaps mindful of Potter's accomplishments, director Kenneth Branagh added a "but seriously, folks" finale to his film, juxtaposing the blithe show tunes with the beginning of WWII.

The new karaoke musical Duets takes this idea of the gap between the beauty of the songs and the drabness of life to a new audience, but it's pretty much an unqualified failure. Maybe the film's real failure lies not in the writing or the acting but in its refusal to explore the gap between the big songs of passion and the darker, twisted and often tentative relationships we experience in real life.

In Duets producer/scriptwriter John Byrum (who wrote the Neal Cassady/Kerouac biopic Heart Beat) and co-producer/director Bruce Paltrow (from TV's St. Elsewhere and father of the celebrated Gwyneth), aim at charting the low-wage lives of salespeople, waitresses and taxi drivers.

The finale takes place at a national karaoke competition, a $5,000 standoff in Omaha--a city prosaic enough for Potter or von Trier. The cleverest part of Duets is its disorienting look. Are the episodes taking place in the South, the Midwest or the Southwest? It's impossible to tell.

Duets complains about America and what it's become--generic, identical from one end to the other, a place in which rootless alienated wanderers can no longer find an escape route. The characters seek communion in karaoke bars, where amateur performers can find self-expression and entertain the hope of making some money in contests.

THE FILM'S DYNAMIC encompasses three couples linked by the subculture of sing-alongs. Huey Lewis plays Ricky, a karaoke artist with an unlikely hustle. He takes sucker bets on the side that result in real money for him when he wins. The furtive, whiskery Lewis does an acceptable cover of Joe Cocker's "Feeling All Right."

Through a late-night phone call (how did anyone track down this transient?), Ricky is reconnected with his long-lost daughter, Liv (Gwyneth Paltrow). The film tells us that Liv has spent most of her life in Las Vegas, but nothing in Sin City has marked her. She's dewy, even simpering. Paltrow gives a performance that's a banquet for her detractors. Overfondness is fatal in a director, and Paltrow's performance can be set next to Sophia Coppola's turn in The Godfather, Part III under the doting direction of her father.

Cut to the short, balding Todd Woods, played by Paul Giamatti. Todd is dying the death of a salesman. He has awoken in one too many airport hotels and has a breakdown, during which he walks out on his loveless marriage by going out for the proverbial pack of cigarettes. In a karaoke bar, he's seduced into performing "Hello, It's Me" and becomes a full-time karaokist after a hip-wiggling performance of Todd Rundgren's shy, cerebral song--addressed, we understand, to a wife who wouldn't listen to his cares and woes.

On the road and speeding out on some coyly unspecified drug, Todd picks up a hitchhiker, Reggie, an ex-con (the script fudges this point and later calls him an escapee). Andre Braugher plays Reggie under a shapeless trench coat and a battered hat. You can see that the actor is trying to get away from the image of inhuman, spotless perfection he's assayed before, usually as a policeman. But this is stunt acting, and the way his character ends up is a shame to relate. Reggie's swan song is an a capella version of the richest, rottenest chestnut in rock history, Lynyard Skynyrd's "Free Bird," embellished with a gasp of tortured ironic laughter.

The third couple gets the shortest shrift: Suzi, a trollopy waitress (Maria Bello, the tough proprietor of the Coyote Ugly bar), and her friend of the moment, Billy (Scott Speedman), an unlucky taxi driver. Duets has Suzi turned out in record time--she's trading blow jobs for money by the halfway point and heading out to Hollywood (for bigger and better blow jobs?). "Bette Davis Eyes" is her anthem, and it's a strange interpretation of Kim Carnes' salute to the power of Bette Davis to put it into the mouth of the perfect courtesan.

Duets is 1970s anomie overdubbed with a more current happy-happy ending: the little people winning, all matched up like cotton socks at the climax. Tragic relief is supplied by Marian Seldes. As a third-grade teacher grown bitter, she tells a former pupil, "The world's a sewer, and we're all living in hell."

To director Paltrow, the escape from this sewer lies in songs like the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This" and the ineffable "Free Bird." The characters aren't "led by the nose by the songs," as Pauline Kael wrote of Pennies From Heaven. In contrast to Potter's analysis of the way popular songs fail us, Duets tells us that the pop songs have all the purity. It's our own messy relationships that muddy them up.

Strangely, the prime musical of this year features no singing at all, only chanting. Duets may have an angelic character named "Liv" (exhorting us "to live," I guess), but it's the cheerleader opus Bring It On that bursts with real vitality.

Bring It On ought to be celebrated for its insouciance, its delirious, silly atmosphere, its overwhelming desire to entertain, its amazing choreography, its celebration of frivolity and youth. When dancing is so intricate, there's no room for the irony between what music seems and what it is. Bring It On points the way into a musical comedy rooted in the thrill of motion--not in the thrall of tradition.

[ Santa Cruz | MetroActive Central | Archives ]


From the September 20-27, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.




Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate