Film · Music and Lyrics

Review-ish: Words and Music

Now I’m a big fan of Turner Classic Movies. This is well documented in my posts from years past. In fact, I remember very well that when I first got cable in Canada — a luxury in itself for the recently employed grad student, I paid for extra channels just to get TCM. It saved me the cost of going to Movieland on Rue St. Catherine every weekend to rent what my friends would grimace and call “old movies”. I was definitely not the one whose house everyone hung out at on a Friday night.

This evening, after a headache and a long day at work, I skipped the gym and came home to dinner. My dad was watching Superman — the only one — with Christopher Reeves and Gene Hackman. Reeves really did embody the Superman ideal. The film ended, and my mum and I skipped through channels, looking for something else worth watching, until we chanced upon Mickey Rooney, his ginger hair, rubbing his hands gleefully. And then followed an unmistakeable face: Cyd Charisse.

Words and Music is the fictionalised biography of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, creators of some of my favourite songs: “Blue Moon”, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”, “Thou Swell”, “My Funny Valentine”, and the all-time favourite, “The Lady is a Tramp”. Apart from Rooney, a constellation of Hollywood’s great musical stars appear in the film: Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Mel Torme, Perry Como, and the first time I ever saw her on screen, Lena Horne.

Words and Music is also the highly sanitized and de-queered biography of Rodgers and Hart. It’s a well known fact that Lorenz Hart was gay, and struggled all his life with his homosexuality, trying to deny it by loving a line of women, and to suppress it by getting blitzed at bars almost every night. Apparently, he suffered from some kind of bipolar/manic depressive disorder as well, which, in the film, is depicted in a frequent kneading of the temples by Rooney, and never fully explained.

The film was a weak narrative that served only to anchor together several sequences of glittering brilliance: the words and music of Rodgers and Hart. No one describes it better than my beloved Richard Corliss at Time, in his paean to Hart, “That Old Feeling: Heart to Hart“, when he describes Hart’s lyrics here: “The best ones have the delight of surprise and the perfection of inevitability. The saddest ones perform heart surgery with a caress. The grateful listener thinks: someone felt this bad, and made poetry this beautiful.”

So Gene Kelly performs one of the first film dance sequences of his career in “Slaughter on 10th Ave.”, and Judy Garland is paired with Rooney for the last time in their careers to sing, for the first time, “I Wish I Were in Love Again” (where the title of this blog post comes from). And Mel Torme sings “Blue Moon” in a way that makes you forget Elvis and the Cowboy Junkies, and anyone else you’ve heard after. And Cyd’s long legs pirouette around the “Blue Room”. And June Allyson’s feet move like quicksilver as she sings “Thou Swell”. And Lena Horne. Lena Horne in her pink and purple tropicalia, flares her delicate nostrils and curves her lips, and sings to me that she gets too hungry for dinner at eight.

And me, I sit in front of this lightbox, watching these apparitions unfold before me so that I am awake and dreaming. They are all long gone, but they are still my celluloid puppeteers, making me smile, lifting my soul up with words and music.

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