Friday, August 12, 2011

Actors That Sing

Werth: Hey, Wise!

Wise: Howdy, Werth!

Werth: Wasn't the screening of Breakfast at Tiffany's on Monday at the A.M.P.A.S. screening room a hoot?

Wise: I loved everything about it—except Mickey Rooney.

Werth: Mr. Yunioshi notwithstanding, I was struck by a part of the film that I hadn't thought about before. There's this really sweet moment when Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly sits on her fire escape, strums a guitar and sings a no vocal-frills rendition of "Moon River."

Wise: She exudes melancholy and vulnerability, using the song to communicate the entire tortured history of the character more efficiently and tenderly than any dialogue could.

Werth: It made me think of how other actors who aren't popular singers wind up using song successfully. Take, for instance, Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's Belle Epoque, Camille-turned musical, Moulin Rouge! (2001). Before appearing as the red-eyed Satine, Kidman was known for her striking beauty in roles ranging from woman in danger (Dead Calm (1989)) to dangerous woman (To Die For (1995)), but she was not known as a singer. 

Wise: You wouldn't sing either if you were married to Tom Cruise.

Werth: But Moulin Rouge! was a musical, so once cast, she had to do more than look pretty—and she did. Kidman's singing voice, while far from powerful, was able to convey the disparate aspects of this lost showgirl who wants success and love but will ultimately be denied both. In "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" she is cheeky, coy and sexy, but in more somber songs like "One Day I'll Fly Away" she emotes a tenderness and dread that help us understand this torn creature. Her voice at times tries too hard, much like this doomed courtesan who thinks she can go from "entertaining" rich men in a glorified whorehouse to treading the boards like Bernhardt.

Wise: Tuberculosis makes her do the wackiest things. 

Werth: And Kidman isn't alone. Her co-stars Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo and Jim Broadbent do some actor-ly signing of their own. Broadbent gives us a charming surprise as the portly Harold Zidler who teaches a musical lesson in love to the tune of "Like a Virgin." 
McGregor's rock vocals had already been showcased in Velvet Goldmine (1998), so it is no surprise that he hits all the right notes as the lovestruck Christian (his name, not his religious affiliation) in numbers like the pop mash-up "Elephant Love Medley". Luhrmann, by casting actors instead of singers, seems to be saying you don't need a Judy Garland, Julie Andrews or a Barbra Streisand to make an affecting musical. You just need someone who can act through a tune.

Wise: Little Voice (1998) is another example of an actor using her singing to create a fully rounded character.  Jane Horrocks plays Laura Hoff, a young woman who retreats into silence after the untimely death of her father.  Her mother Mari (Brenda Blethyn) has no patience for Laura's sorrow, spending evenings with an unending string of rough trade lovers and mocking Laura's habit of listening to her father's record collection by calling her "Little Voice."  When Mari takes up with local man on the make Ray Say (Michael Caine), he recognizes that Laura's ability to mimic the great torch singers of the past is an opportunity to make some cash.  Little do Mari and Ray know that by pushing Little Voice out of her room and onto the stage provides her with the confidence to escape their abuse.

Werth: Much like I sing in the bathtub to escape the abuse of people who think Mommie Dearest is non-fiction.

Wise: Helping Little Voice along with generous good intentions is Billy (Ewan McGregor), a shy assistant TV repairman who sees Laura as a person and not just as a cash machine.

Werth: Ewan McGregor should appear twice in all our Film Gab postings.  

Wise: Based on the stage play by Jim Cartwright, Little Voice never really escapes its theatrical origins—the characters are broad, the plot overwrought—but Jane Horrocks' ability to channel the vocal styles of Shirley Bassey, Édith Piaf and Judy Garland makes this film an addictive entertainment.  She uses their performances as an escape hatch from the tawdry life her mother has forced upon her.  
The rest of the film is a little glum, with Blethyn and Caine camping up their barroom high-jinks and an oily turn from Jim Broadbent as a seedy nightclub owner.

Werth: I wish I could get a fantastic permed mullet like his. 

Wise: Despite the occasional misstep, Little Voice provides an excellent showcase for the transformative power of music, elevating what could have been a forgettably droll Brit-com into joyful entertainment.  

Werth: All this talk of singing makes me want to take a trip to Marie's Crisis.

Wise: I'll grab a barstool. The rest of you Film Gabbers grab us again next week!

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