by Alix Cohen
Edith Piaf – La Vie en Rose 2007 Co-written and Directed by Olivier Dahan. Starring Marion Cotillard. Despite liberties, the film will give you a fairly good sense of “The Little Sparrow” from street urchin childhood, to booed music hall performer, to international star, and, finally child-like old woman. The indomitable Piaf often makes poor choices in love, overcomes addiction, performs, suffers tragedy, and writes timeless songs, never feeling as if she fits. It’s a tumultuous life . Amazon Prime/Netflix
Al Jolson- The Jolson Story 1946 with Larry Parks. Asa Yoelson, son of a Cantor, sings loudly from the audience in a theater one day and is discovered by an entertainer who wants him to be part of his act. Yoelson’s family is appalled. The boy runs away and is brought home, but declares he’ll keep doing it until allowed to go into show business. We watch development of his iconoclastic style and his climb to success. Along the way he falls in love, marries, quits at her insistence, and returns to his first love, singing. Parks is good. Evocative. The DVD is available to buy on Amazon, but not to stream.
Jolson Sings Again 1949 with Larry Parks. Part II. Jolson’s comeback is a great success, but no longer satisfying. In an effort to stave away loneliness, he takes to drinking, gambling, and women, regaining his senses only with the death of his mother and the start of WWII. The performer entertains troops all over the world, working to exhaustion. A pretty nurse reminds him there’s more to life. Netflix
There are two film versions of The Jazz Singer depicting Jolson’s defiance of his Jewish family to follow his heart into entertainment. The first is a 1927 version Directed by Alan Crosland, starring Jolson himself. A precursor to sound, it features a synchronized, recorded music score and lip-synchronous singing and speech. ‘Nothing like watching the icon himself.
1980’s updated version of The Jazz Singer Directed by Richard Fleischer stars and has a score by Neal Diamond (at the height of his popularity.) Laurence Olivier plays his father the cantor, Lucie Arnaz the love interest. Here, the protagonist is a rock performer. Still, the story is the same, writing lands well, songs are infectious. (A fine CD if you like Diamond) Both on Amazon Prime/Netflix
Ruth Etting– Love Me or Leave Me 1955. Doris Day plays the dime-a-dancer who rose to fame as a singer with the help of gangster Martin “The Gimp” Snyder (Jimmy Cagney.) Pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) is in love with Ruth, but so is her “patron.” She marries Martin out of misplaced gratitude. He becomes her manager, but uneducated and crude, hampers his wife’s career.
When Martin opens a nightclub, Johnny rejoins Ruth. Catching them together Martin asks no questions despite an uncompromising scene . He murders the pianist. Ruth bails him out and they meet once more. Very much of its era, the film is more atmospherically than historically accurate, though the facts are true. Etting popularized such as the title song, “Ten Cents a Dance,” “Shaking the Blues Away” and “Mean to Me.” Amazon Prime
Woody Guthrie- Bound For Glory Loosely adapted from Guthrie’s partly fictionalized autobiography. 1976 Directed by Hal Ashby. Keith Carradine laconically plays Woody. The story is condensed and filled with characters who didn’t exist, but shows The Depression spotlightings Guthrie’s many inspiring songs. It’s a glimpse that may provoke you to learn more.
In the 1930s, unable to support his Dust Bowl family as a house painter, Woody Guthrie hitches to California promising he’ll send for them. Working conditions for laborers and fruit pickers enrage him. He joins the first of several musical groups, expressing himself in song.
We see an affair before he sends for his family. Gradually gaining a following, first on radio, then in person, he eventually moves east. Throughout his life the singer/songwriter never compromised his principles, lending himself to humanist causes, leaving a legacy of timeless material. Amazon Prime/Netflix
Johnny Cash- Walk the Line 2005 Directed by James Mangold based on two autobiographies by the singer-songwriter. Joaquin Phoenix as Cash, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash (yes, they both sing well) and Ginnifer Goodwin as his first wife. Blamed for his favored brother’s sawmill-related death, Johnny Cash grows up feeling guilty and rejected. On leave from The Air Force, the moody young man buys a guitar and starts writing songs. “Folsom Prison Blues” is one of the first. Cash becomes a door to door salesman to support his family, but music calls. He manages to get an audition with and is then recorded by Sam Philips of Sun Records.
On tour, Cash meets and falls in love with June Carter, a successful performer in her own right. At first rejecting him as married, she later gives in, but struggles with his addictions to drugs and alcohol. When he promises to divorce and marry her, June puts her foot down. He comes to her clean and sober or not at all. Cash goes cold turkey with June at his side and then marries her. They tour together for decades. Screenplay, acting and direction are good. An effective film. Amazon Prime/Netflix
Liberace- Behind the Candelabra 2015 A made-for-television series Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. Michael Douglas is wonderful as the showman as is Matt Damon playing Scott Thorson, for ten years Liberace’s “adopted son”/ boy toy. Based on Thorson’s memoir. A multi-layered and sensitive portrayal, warts and all. Super production values. After serendipitously treating one of Liberace’s beloved dogs, Thorsen is invited to become the icon’s live-in assistant i.e. lover/chauffer/dogsbody. He moves into luxurious digs, is wined, dined and gifted.
It becomes clear that the pianist is refashioning the young man in his own image. (Surgery anyone?) Increasingly frustrated by being kept in the dark and aware of his host’s wandering eye, Thorsen turns to drugs. A younger, prettier man comes between them causing the final rift. Thorsen sues for palimony. Liberace lies. They meet once more before the older man dies of AIDS. Amazon Prime/Netflix