Commissioned by Swedish National Public Radio to devise an original radio musical with Swedish language content, Sparks siblings Ron and Russell Mael have significantly transcended their brief with The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which has a resonance that goes some way beyond its parochial origins.
In doing so, they have created an emblematic story tackling one of the great artistic issues of the last century, viz: the cultural divide separating Europe and America.
In the Maels' narrative, despite his "total disdain for escapist art", Bergman on a whim goes to see a typical American blockbuster in a Swedish cinema, and upon leaving the venue finds himself somehow stranded in Hollywood, the prey of studio bosses desperate to lure the award-winning director into their clutches. The bleak sheets of synthesised strings and organ that accompanied his introductory attitudinal sketch "I Am Ingmar Bergman" are suddenly replaced by more extrovert, prancing piano and strings interspersed with traffic noise as he's whisked by limo to the studio, where conniving executives wait to ply him with favours.
Employing the weasel logic of the powerful vulgarian ("We're not hicks, but we must deliver kicks"), the studio head attempts to persuade a dubious Bergman that he can work within the Hollywood system. Visiting "The Studio Commissary", a mittel-european polka accompanies the pair as the executive, like Satan tempting Jesus on the mountaintop, points out the ranks of Bergman's peers who reached their own compromises with the American way: Wilder, Lang, Murnau, Tourneur, Von Sternberg, and "Alfred Hitchcock, bless his soul, there chomping on a dinner roll, The Man Who Knew Too Much done twice, in Hollywood, done twice as nice". Bergman remains unconvinced, and tries to escape, fleeing westward pursued by police cars "like an actor in a bad, big budget Hollywood action film", until finally, upon the beach at Malibu, he has an epiphanic encounter, not with a chess-playing Death, but instead an angelic Greta Garbo, sent "to guide you home to somewhere monochrome, but somewhere you will be a certain kind of free". It's all resolved with a neatly circular plot device, which imposes a happy parabola upon the narrative.
Sharply scripted, with that sly, knowing touch so typical of Sparks, it's also scored with scrupulous intelligence, the arrangements drawing on a range of apt influences, from Kurt Weill to jazz, pop and rock, and the orchestrations ingeniously duplicitous, wistful and sinister, as the action dictates. It may well turn out to be the pinnacle of Sparks' career, and certainly has an ambition well beyond the usual remit of popular culture.
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