Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Band Wagon

I'd never get away with Joseph B.'s periodic post - What's in the Netflix Queue? - these days, I'd be lucky to get a post a year out of that. I've been sitting on a couple films for months - like The Band Wagon, sitting on a shelf since - the new year? maybe. Ouch...

Anyway - Band Wagon is an interesting case. Story is - Fred Astaire as Tony Hunter, who like Fred in the early fifties, used to be a star and is now washed up. He comes to NY where some friends have a script - they pitch it to the resident Broadway genius (Jack Buchanon channeling Oscar Jaffe, and apparently Vincente Minnelli) who sees it as an updated musical Faust. They bring in Cyd Charisse to dance with Fred and off they go - but the serious pyrotechnic Faust bombs, so they rework it into the original light review in the script. We see this as a series of numbers, culminating in a murder mystery ballet. Hooray! The world is a stage, the stage is a world of entertainment!

It's an interesting case because, while presented as a musical comedy, it feels more like a melodrama - it's one of those stories that struggles to force a kind of happy go lucky frame around notably dark material. It plays like Two Weeks in Another Town, with a happy ending, and more hoofing - Tony Hunter's desperation, confusion, sense of being left behind by the world, the arts, the fear of failure - permeates it. The cheerful musical seems grafted on. Certainly, the musical that emerges on "stage" in the film feels desperate and hokey, and rather tedious. I think I'd rather see the musical Faust they were making fun of.... It's not a ridiculous idea, really - it's anticipating where musicals were about to go in the 50s - a musical Faust, combining popular and classical dancing, comedy and tragedy, set in contemporary New York - it's not more unlikely than a musical version of Romeo and Juliet in the modern age, mixing popular, ballet, and avant garde dance, right?

The film, I think, is definitely closer to that idea than it is to the happy story in the plot. Personally, I think Minnelli is better at melodrama than musicals - or maybe I should say, his musicals (the three I've seen anyway - it's not one of my strong suits) seem to work best through a kind of darkness. Meet Me In St. Louis is a notably melancholy musical, with moments of fairly genuine pain. There's an ache there - the fear of growing up, leaving home, fear of change, the deeper themes of entering the modern world - all part of that film. (For that matter, wasn't Cabin in the Sky a bit of a Faust tale?) It's the same here - a man facing his own mortality, or maybe worse, his obsolescence - and in general, the fear of failure for the whole company. It does very well at capturing that anxiety - but it let's everyone off, shifting gears and orchestrating a happy ending.... Though the very ending - might be the most haunted, mournful declaration of love I have ever seen - the words are romantic; the look - is melodrama...

Oh well. That aside, it's impeccably directed, shot, staged, dressed (people and sets), written, acted, full of jokes and lines and bits of business, and that pervasive undercurrent of desperation... And it has it's showstoppers - the utterly gorgeous Girl Hunt ballet; the "Dancing in the Dark" dance where Fred and Cyd learn to dance with one another; and the delicious "shine on your Shoes" - great stuff. In what has the makings of a great film, but I am inclined to think tries too hard to hide it's essentially melodramatic nature. I do think Minnelli's melodramas are his best films - Some Came Running or Home from the Hill or The Bad and the Beautiful - those are his masterpieces... Band Wagon plays like it would rather be that, but has to be a comedy...

2 comments:

Moviezzz said...

I bought THE BAND WAGON at Big Lots for $3 last year and it is STILL sitting in my stack of "To See" DVDs.

One of these days.

weepingsam said...

Well worth it... it's one of those films where all the parts are wonderful, but the whole doesn't quite seem to cohere - though it certainly contributes to my respect for Minnelli - I'm inclined to think he's one of the premier American directors of this era, and this film contributes to that... you've probably noticed, I tend to use "melodrama" as a term of praise...