WHILE channel-surfing last night, I noticed that a movie called ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ had been scheduled for telecast on TCM in the late night slot. The title aroused my interest, as it was also the name of one of legendary American composer George Gershwin’s best-known pieces. I did a quick Google search to discover that the 1945 movie was actually a slightly fictionalised portrait of his life.
Later that night, I had no regrets staying up. Clearly, this was one of the best musical biopics I had seen, which gave me a much deeper insight into the life and thinking of the great Gershwin. Needless to say, the music was amazing — a good mix of 30s classical, opera, jazz, blues, Broadway and pop. After all, Gershwin was one composer who straddled both worlds equally magnificently. Add to that, Robert Alda’s performance in the lead role was simply amazing, truly bringing out the musician’s personality.
Many of us know Gershwin for the immortal tune ‘Summertime’, one of the most ‘covered’ songs in history. His other brilliant standards include ‘Embraceable You’, ‘I Got Rhythm’, ’It Ain’t Necessarily So’, ‘A Foggy Day’, ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ and ‘Love Is Here To Stay’. His orchestral compositions ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ and ‘An American In Paris’, and his opera ‘Porgy & Bess’ have attained their own place in greatness.
That was the era of musical innovation, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. Besides George and his brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics of many of the later works, the star composers of the 30s included Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Rodgers-Hart and Rodgers-Hammerstein.
Though the Irving Rapper-directed movie does not specifically talk about the era, or refer to the contribution of Gershwin’s contemporaries, it does take a detailed look at his life. Yes, there are two romances in the movie, which are said to be fictionalised — though one wonders why that was necessary. But the depiction of his childhood, struggle and rise to fame are immaculate. Gershwin’s early death, at age 38 following a brain illness, has not been overplayed, but shown rather subtly.
Over the years, Hollywood has had many movies based on lives of legendary musicians. Each of them has boasted of a stunning performance by the lead player. Val Kilmer as rock star Jim Morrison in ‘The Doors’, Tom Hulce as classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in ‘Amadeus’, Joaquin Phoenix as country great Johnny Cash in ‘Walk The Line’, Jamie Foxx as rhythm ‘n’ blues great Ray Charles in ‘Ray’ and Jeffrey Wright as blues legend Muddy Waters in ‘Cadillac Records’ are examples that instantly come to mind.
In ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, Robert Alda plays his role to perfection. His effortlessness with the piano, the spark and ambition in his eyes, the passion in his expression and the sheer frustration of being unable to compose because of illness add the right meat to the character. For those who are interested in the history of 20th century music, this is a must-watch.