Film Studies: Sunday in the Rockies with Stephen - and about time too

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The Independent Culture

What has he done in movies, that this weekend, high in the Colorado Rockies, he should be receiving tribute from the 30th idiosyncratic but deeply intuitive Telluride Film Festival? He once helped write a strange thriller called The Last of Sheila. He wrote the music for Alain Resnais's nearly forgotten film from the Seventies, Stavisky, the one in which Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the swindler and spy. He won an Oscar for the song "Sooner or Later", which was rendered by Madonna in Dick Tracy.

This is not exactly a lifetime's labour, but as to his "real" occupation, virtually nothing of this man's work has been filmed - if one allows for Hal Prince's implausibly cast version of A Little Night Music (1978), and on television,Tomorrow La Scala!, in which lifers take part in a production of Sweeney Todd.

I am talking about Stephen Sondheim, and I endorse and support the decision by Telluride to recognise genius, just as if they had plucked from history Isaac Newton or Vladimir Nabokov. Telluride has a kind of inspired perversity. It may come from the fact that even if the tributes are very high and mighty, the movie gods seem dwarfed by the mountains.

I suspect that Mr Sondheim will more than pay his way at Telluride. I know that his pleasure at being invited turned on the opportunity to present some films by the neglected French director Julien Duvivier - perhaps Poil de carotte (1932), Pepe le Moko (1937) and Un carnet de bal (1937), films that begin to explain Sondheim's attachment to France in the Thirties (the period in which much of Stavisky occurs).

There is a far larger question to be debated at Telluride: what has happened to the once rich relationship between the great composers of popular song or romantic melody and Hollywood? To put it another way, how could America be so careless as to mislay one of its greatest inventions, the musical?

For consider this: in the very years that saw the creation and the golden age of American movies, the hills were alive with music. Irving Berlin (1888-1989); Jerome Kern (1885-1945); Richard Rodgers (1902-79); Lorenz Hart (1895-1943); Harold Arlen (1905-86); Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960); Cole Porter (1892-1964); George Gershwin (1898-1937). Already it's a staggering list, maybe more momentous than any gathering of great American movie-makers from the same years. Yet it's incomplete. I haven't yet reached E Y Harburg (1906-81); Howard Dietz (1896-1983); Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981); Ned Washington (1901-76); Dorothy Fields (1905-74); Johnny Mercer (1909-76); Frank Loesser (1910-69); Sammy Cahn (1913-93). Nor Louis Armstrong, Billy Strayhorn, Edward Ellington.

You get the point. All of those composers and/or lyricists wrote for Tin Pan Alley, for Broadway, for records and radio - and for the movies. In many cases their songs were bought up by Hollywood by the armful, or shows were roughly translated from stage to screen. But along the way, there were things we can call original movie musicals, some not simply excuses for Astaire and Rogers or Kelly and Garland to do a string of numbers, but unique blends of theatre, melodrama, and film. Of music and action - the very fusion at which Stephen Sondheim excels.

From the history of the Hollywood musical we haveThe Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris, Funny Face, Meet Me in St Louis, Francis Coppola's One from the Heart (music by Tom Waits) and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge - to say nothing of those supposedly straight movies where a sequence rides along on the music (I am thinking of most film by Howard Hawks as well as Otto Preminger's gorgeous Anatomy of a Murder, limo'd by its Ellington score).

I am dreaming of movies where not only is the entire story, theme or meaning embodied in the music - but works where the story and its meaning are as challenging as any offered by so-called drama:Pacific Overtures, Follies, Merrily We Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Passion (and others) all of which are by Stephen Sondheim, and all of which seem beyond the reach or ambition of film-makers. People often ask what is wrong with American movies today. One answer is in the rubbish made, but the more profound is in the treasury ignored.