The Same Old Songs
Michael Koresky on Everyone Says I Love You
Amidst the clutter and general weariness of the latest of Woody Allen’s annual releases, Anything Else, there is a musical interlude as unheralded and ignored as anything else from the film’s rehashed psychoanalytic muck. As Jason Biggs’s Woody surrogate/cipher defeatedly flops down into a chair in his cramped apartment, to “Oy vey” at the pointlessness of his narcissistic existence, his girlfriend’s boozy mother who’s eternally crashed at his place, played by Stockard Channing, gently perches at her piano, which has become an albatross for the hapless protagonist. She starts to accompany herself, singing a slightly narcotized version of Peggy Lee’s “There’ll Be Another Spring”; the camera cuts through the dreary haze of Allen’s discomfitingly static and stubborn mise-en-scène, and in a slow zoom simply frames the poignancy of Channing’s rendition. The film, steeped in an antagonistic neuroticism so ingrained in the filmmaker that it now borders on threatening, lets down its defenses here, and gives into the simple tranquility of the moment. Channing’s voice is pleasant but not lovely, her rhythms slightly askew but not jarring. Yet the song’s effect is like headlights cutting through a thick, blinding fog; Woody loses his way, but music brings him back home.
Many contemporary directors shape scenes or entire films as though musical movements, with or without accompaniment or perfect soundtrack-image synchronization, building narratives with a verse-chorus-bridge format (Paul Thomas Anderson has said that with Magnolia, he tried to create the filmic equivalent and driving pop force of Lennon-McCartney’s “Day in the Life”) or bounding ahead to extended emotional crescendos of supreme visual invention (Tarantino’s gore-splattered House of Blue Leaves climax in Kill Bill: Volume One moves with the grace and visual ephiphany of a Busby Berkeley super-number). Woody Allen, on the other hand, has always used music to gingerly step back from the narrative, to remove himself from the action for a brief moment and discover tangential grace, a calming warmth disattached from the main plot thrust and formally integrated through subtle gesture, a chance for Allen to let the audience catch their breath as well as to catch them off-guard. Diane Keaton’s mid-film rendition of “Seems Like Old Times” in Annie Hall was an oasis within the film’s constant outpouring of verbal and visual gags and chronological reconfiguration. Here, Keaton’s la-di-da flibbertigibbet dissolved all of her neurotic mannerisms and simply stood still, gently and lovingly warbling what became the film’s essence. Through this standard tune, Annie Hall became truly transporting, and with its closing montage reprise, heartbreakingly poignant. Allen used Keaton’s lilting stage presence in quite the same way for his 1987 memory piece Radio Days, in which she appeared at the climactic New Years Eve 1943 bash singing Cole Porter’s melancholy “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” After the film’s endless parade of vignettes, Keaton’s musical performance once again united the narrative’s threads, between the public (radio personalities) and the private (the family that listens to them for some form of guidance). In both cases. Allen doesn’t cut away from Keaton while she sings.
Likewise, many of Allen’s other films utilize musical interludes as emotional anchors. Manhattan’s many Gershwin-accompanied sequences move less like narrative-fueled montages than rhapsodic escapades; the Chekhovian drudgery of September is put on hold at its midpoint for an extended blackout sequence set to a gentle piano tinkering of “On a Slow Boat to China” (used again for Famke Janssen’s East River ferry revenge in Celebrity); Sweet and Lowdown’s gentle Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar chords put an exhilaration on Sean Penn’s face that deepen his character’s subtle contradictions; Mighty Aphrodite’s inventive, belabored Greek chorus finally springs to conceptual life during its maniacally choreographed production numbers of “You Do Something to Me” and “When You’re Smiling.” It’s this last film that truly paved the way for what ultimately was inevitable for Woody Allen: a full-fledged, old-fashioned musical, with actors singing their hearts out and breaking into impromptu soft-shoes. The result, Everyone Says I Love You (1996), was something slightly baffling, a head-on plunge into a recently “lost” form that acknowledged its own limitations and wore its goofiness on its sleeve. Affectionate tribute or flat-out parody? Its occasional ludicrousness flows uneasily with its moments of spellbinding grace and loving regard for its suddenly antiquated tropes. Much of the humor (musical spectaculars performed in hospital emergency rooms by burn victims and straight-jacketed asylum escapees, homeless panhandlers crooning while begging for change, movie stars with limited vocal range doing their damndest to stay on-key) pointed back to Allen’s early days of free-form slapstick, but there was a certain formal sophistication present that belied any sense of regression.
The question ultimately isn’t whether Woody Allen intended to pay tribute to or mock the classical Hollywood musical conventions, but whether the reimagining of these conventions could be accepted within the parameters of contemporary American filmmaking. Everyone Says I Love You and Evita, both released concurrently in December of 1996, were tagged as harbingers of the musical’s comeback, a lack of foresight once again promised and quickly rescinded in 2000 (Dancer in the Dark), 2001 (Moulin Rouge, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and of course, this past year with the best picture-winning Fosse rehash Chicago. The usual, ridiculous claims against the genre’s true resurgence being that it lacks “believability” and that audiences can no longer accept characters simply breaking into song because it’s “unrealistic,” are reflected in these intermittent comeback attempts, and their efforts to posit the musical sequences within narrative frameworks. Dancer in the Dark, though hardly intended to pave the way for a Hollywood musical regeneration, delegated Björk’s digital-video production numbers to the dream realm—by its ending, music equaled madness. Hedwig had the luck to be based on an off-Broadway cult item, its outrageousness easily attributable to John Cameron Mitchell’s outsized stage presence. Chicago was much-praised for screenwriter Bill Condon’s half-hearted attempt to place all of Kander and Ebb’s razzle-dazzlers within the delusional mind of its femme fatale, Roxie. Only Moulin Rouge ran headfirst into an underworld of earnest musical spontaneity, yet its imagery and song-choice appealed more to a generation reared on music video—these weren’t really characters singing to one another, but dazed, amalgamated figures reacting to a century of pop. Is there truly such a thing as a revisionist musical, or, as with the western, are we doomed to see the occasional nostalgic remnant spat out every couple of years, hoping to provide the fertilizer for the next big thing that never sprouts?
Aside from Disney’s temporary monopoly on Broadway-style musical features throughout the early Nineties (Alan Menken reinvigorated not just animation but kick-line bombast itself with Beauty and the Beast, and Phil Collins ultimately rang the animated musical’s death knell with his echo-chamber lethargy in Tarzan), only Everyone Says I Love You managed to recycle a commercially defunct form and spike it with a few new tricks. Post Husbands and Wives—Allen’s cynical cathartic relationship tell-all disguised as fiction disguised as documentary—the director seemed to be moving in a different direction. Woody’s characters seemed to be moving a little towards abstraction in the Nineties in favor of a more high-concept approach, filled with central ideas that supported themselves rather than the people onscreen, certainly a departure from the strictly character-driven Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, Alice, Another Woman, etc. With Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway, Mighty Aphrodite, and the later piffly triumvirate Small Time Crooks, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Hollywood Ending, Allen’s plots—with the notable exception of the music-heavy Sweet and Lowdown—could suddenly be boiled down into single sentence summaries (“The lengths we go for our art,” “Loser criminals strike it rich inadvertently,” “Director goes blind during movie shoot and keeps it a secret”), sound bites that reflected that characters were to become secondary. Everyone Says I Love You furthers this notion; each principal role is merely a vessel for Woody Allen’s unfashionable experiment, a vague patchwork of the director’s fetishes and hang-ups, fantasies and pet topics strung together with the thinnest of threads, all in a highly romanticized vision of a close-knit, privileged Upper West Side staunchly liberal clan. One of the vaguest of Allen’s plots finds each member of the extended family finding and losing love, wistfully gazing into past romances, traveling back and forth between an immaculately idealized four-seasoned New York, a moonglowing Venice, and a snow blanketed wintry Paris. The presentation is largely de-ethnicized, the Dandridge family is suspectly WASP-y, (leads Alan Alda and Goldie Hawn have spent their careers shuttling between Jewish and gentile types—Hawn is specifically adept at playing the spoiled rich girl, but Private Benjamin’s JAP-in-training added a slight ethnic layer), their glorious Central Park West apartment a slightly more cozy variation on Alice’s late-eighties palace of Manhattan excess. “We’re not the typical type of family you find in a musical comedy...We got dough,” teenage narrator DJ (Natasha Lyonne) winks to the audience near the beginning. (No My Fair Lady rags-to-riches here, no South Pacific social commentary—it’s more like the laughably privileged bunch Mia Farrow gazed at in The Purple Rose of Cairo with a dab of Swing Time.) The most palpable predicament seems to be how many thousands of dollars the weak-chinned white-bread Holden Spence (Edward Norton) will spend on a diamond engagement ring for Schuyler Dandridge (Drew Barrymore). Naturally, she accidentally swallows the “tasteful” bauble when he places it on her parfait.
Hilariously quotable blank slates all, Allen’s characters are used as templates for a highly tenuous balancing act. As the title goes, each lovelorn character gets his turn to sing, in performances either adequately lovely (Hawn, Alda), charmingly clumsy (Norton, Tim Roth), tone-deaf terrified (Julia Roberts), or flat-out dubbed (Barrymore). Each song is meant to represent an expression of deepest emotion, the words they can’t utter in dialogue, yet each actor faces his song as an insurmountable wall, a queue from the Woody’s Favorites Songbook they must begrudgingly accept as a feat of strength to prove their fealty to the legendary filmmaker. Everyone sings all right, but this being the late nineties, everyone needs an excuse to sing. Even Woody’s graceful little tribute to a bygone tuneful filmic innocence is subject to a certain self-consciousness; its presence as a fetish object is an unavoidable fact. No matter how gleeful or graceful (Goldie Hawn’s climactic literal dance-on-air by the Seine is a moment for the Woody Allen canon), it can never exist in a vacuum, or truly express its characters’ naivete. Though not pastiche, it dredges up a century’s worth of musical history in its wake.
Allen’s own tried-and-true aesthetic is what sets the film apart; his stylization at once highlights and naturalizes the musical elements and choreographic dexterity. His usual procession of white-on-black titles is here saved for the end—a single title card simply, silently pops onscreen and is gone. And then the movie begins with a smooth Carlo DiPalma zoom into Norton quietly serenading Barrymore with “Just You, Just Me,” both slightly obscured as the camera glides past a row of spouting frothy fountains. The first cut after this charming opening is a splendidly bustling New York spring in ridiculous full bloom: acres of lilacs and tulips, new mothers dancing and singing with their strollers, bums serenading passersby. An early shot of a line of Yves Saint-Laurent window mannequins coming to life and moving to the rhythms of Dick Hyman’s lovingly traditional orchestrations firmly plants everything to follow within the realm of fantasy. Yet it’s Allen’s approach (long takes, zooms cutting through chaotic tableaux, awkward actor improvisations in scenes that go way past when he should have yelled “Cut!”) that grounds this fantasy in his oeuvre, it’s as earthy as Hannah and Her Sisters, as metropolitan goofy as Manhattan Murder Mystery. He crams the frame of the “My Baby Just Cares for Me” sequence, set in an expensive jewelry store in which Holden searches for the perfect diamond ring, with intricate choreography, tuxedoed chorus lines dangling bracelets and jump-roping with valuable necklaces, and then counters the glitter with naturalistic, subtle in-and-out zooms and Edward Norton’s two-left-foot platypus dance. Allen’s most bravura number is “Makin’ Whoopee,” a single-take miracle in which the camera simply swivels back and forth between two long hallway spaces yet through an increasingly hectic fusion of music and dance captures a feeling of constant movement. By the time the number ends, with its bombastic cluster of wailing nurses, kick-lining wheelchair riders, and men shuffling in full-body casts, you’re not aware that he hasn’t cut once, the audacity of its undefinable charm has overshadowed its startling visual economy.
Whether it’s a Cole Porter standard, a Marx Brothers tune by Burt Kalmar and Harry Ruby, or a Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn ditty, each song is taken directly from Woody’s playbook, once consigned to background soundtrack piano tinkling, now thrust into the narrative forefront. In some ways, this recycling of old tunes has become the true mainstay of the contemporary American musical; a film with all original songs would be the true anomaly. Moulin Rouge was hoisted up by old pop relics and recent chart hits (The Police’s rancid “Roxanne” segued into a fairly noxious Andrew Lloyd Webber-esque tango, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was made into mock-operatic mince-meat); Chicago was based on Kander and Ebb showstoppers written nearly three decades earlier that were in turn meant to evoke more vaudevillian Twenties rhythms. The generally agreed-upon “best musical ever,” Singin’ in the Rain—watched by an ecstatic Woody and Mia on an old 16mm projector in Crimes and Misdemeanors—was the template for this approach: by the time moviegoers bought a ticket for Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s lovingly, gently satiric musical comedy (sound familiar?), they were already well-acquainted with the title tune, “Make ‘em Laugh,” and “Good Morning.” It’s the instant recognition that promises viewer acceptance and keeps at bay the need for serious songwriters in Hollywood (save those moments leading up to the Oscars in which an “original” song is awkwardly grafted onto a non-musical’s closing credits to sneak in one more nomination—U2 for Gangs of New York? Well, I guess they’re Irish. Enya for Lord of the Rings? Well, I guess she imagines herself as mythic...). Woody Allen’s reliance on old standards may be inevitable, but it reflects the musical trends of the moment, to eradicate a complete cinematic autonomy, to echo the genre’s every backward and forward lurch throughout the century. “Pomo chic” Moulin Rouge, then, for all its radical gambits and unseemly artificiality, is probably the most honest of the recent glut of musicals, it sees its limitations, and then bounds over them, sometimes soaring, often times crashing face first back into the ground.
But Woody Allen closes with a heavenly ascendance. Goldie Hawn’s lofty Parisian glide could be contemporary musicals’ most persuasive argument for genre resurgence. As she twirls into the night sky, dancing on the breeze, and doing a virtual moonwalk without moving her feet, Hawn’s marvelous wire act manifests as a latter-day Astaire-Rogers, albeit with optical effects providing the grace notes. Perhaps in these days of barely-tapping Richard Geres and gawkily-undulating Renée Zellwegers, soft-shoe slaying Edward Nortons and a-cut-a-millisecond tangos set to old Sting tunes, this is the only surviving remnant of a glorious Golden Age, now propped up with enhanced visual trickery. To truly resurrect the dead, a little alchemy is necessary after all.