From musical magic to movie mayhem

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The Independent Online
There has been a spate of nostalgic movie musicals around, but instead of being uplifting, which you might expect of any musical, let alone offerings that evoke the past, they are mostly rather nasty. Only one, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is a must-watch. Wouldn't you know it? It's French. And it's not merely about the past, it's old (1964). Its director, Jacques Demy, made no bones from the start: his film was to be deliberately, perhaps even kitschly, enchanting. It was to recapture the romantic exhilaration of a seaside adolescence.

The other films, new and newish, not merely lack charm, but talk about the past for an age and perhaps a society which assumes that charm must be weak-minded, patronising and phoney. Somewhere between musicals such as South Pacific or West Side Story and now, we lost the ability to see that toughness and tenderness can flourish without descending into violence or sentimentality. And perhaps we also put in peril the means of living happily together. Even the sensibly liberal film censor James Ferman bemoans the modern sea of blood and sees it as a problem unique in the cinema's history, and a threat to our well-being. It is unlikely that he was thinking of musicals when he considered the depraving effects of the medium.

But he might have. Take, for instance, the brilliant new Robert Altman film, Kansas City. It is, as his Short Cuts would make one expect, noir and - as the cliche has it - closely observed. Altman's story-telling (rich dopehead kidnapped by flaky incompetent) is gripping and gives him lots of opportunities for vignettes of real insight. The result is a musical because, throughout the action, jazz musicians are playing themselves playing the classics of the Thirties, and because it is clear from the start that the idea of a music-mad town is what motivates the enterprise. All in all it is a triumph of style and intelligence, with the grip of a Raymond Chandler. Except that at one point in the film there is a stylish beating of great savagery and improbability. I didn't believe a beating like that would have taken place in the circumstances, and even if it had, we didn't need to be shown it. I found myself withdrawing from the whole film on account of this folly, which was probably only included as a necessary draw.

The Who's album Quadrophenia, one of the best sustained works by any rock band, was recorded in 1973 and made into a film in 1979. The movie was made in the punk era, when nastiness was even more chic than usual among film-makers seeking to make a mark. The film, though not the previous score, dwells on the tribal confrontations between Mods and Rockers on Brighton beach in the early Sixties. So far as I can gather, these were more like the ritual displays of mating birds than real war, but that wouldn't do for the film-makers. Franc Roddam, the director, portrays the Mods as nasty pieces of work, and depicts what were probably occasional serious incidents as routine.

In the late Seventies, the Who put out an album called The Kids Are Alright, and I wore one of the badges advertising it. The odd thing is that the kids more or less are and were all right, but not as portrayed by the Who's film. In any case their being all right is not much enhanced by a constant diet of tricked-up nastiness such as Quadrophenia. Young people seeing the film will think that contrived unpleasantness is the natural way of their grandfathers (Mods have become that generation) and may as well not be eschewed now.

Evita is closer to the old model of musical than the others, simply because it was a fully-fledged stage show before being got up in celluloid. It can claim to be romantic, though of course it romanticises a tricky era of history rather than the mating game. The music in Evita is surprisingly engaging. The performances are good, including Madonna's. And yet the film is a rather nasty piece of work. Leave aside that it celebrates a dictator's wife, more to the point is that one is given very little reason for liking anyone in the piece, except perhaps the dictator himself, since he does at least seem to be in love. There is a peculiar disjunction between soaring love songs (and even elegiac patriotic songs) and the troubling issue of just how much of a frost Evita really was. It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that it was necessary to make it clear where the film thought the truth might lie, and whether it redeems or condemns Eva Peron. It would have helped if the film had implied that its point of view is that such things don't matter, and that what does matter is to portray how interesting Evita is. But she isn't, on this account: Evita is not much more than a wall of sound and some frocks. (By the way, this is pretty obviously a "chick" movie: let's have no nonsense about women being more scrupulous in these matters.)

Alan Parker is a wonderfully talented director, but his tastelessness here should be no surprise: The Commitments, rather like the Who's Quadrophenia, seemed to suppose that no working-class young people could be depicted without plenty of hitting going on. It's as though only the fist conveys authenticity.

There is no hitting at all in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, set in the late Fifties or very early Sixties. The film is instead magical. Never since Salad Days or The Boyfriend, which belong to the Fifties, have the British produced a musical half so romantic. Salad Days was, of course, satirical (it reminds one mostly of the style of the pocket cartoons of Osbert Lancaster, with shades of John Minton's drawings of sunny and youthful boys and girls), and was fresh as springtime. Umbrellas is equally sharp in its observation. It is set in the real Cherbourg, and in a real garage. A mechanic falls in love with a girl in a real shop. The pettiness of her mother's social code, and her ambition for her daughter, ensure that their romance fails. But then you notice that the colours of this world are mostly pastel, and mostly clash.

The current showings demand to be seen because Demy's foresight has meant that an exquisite restoration of the prints has been possible. There is a sort of Absolutely Fabulous passion for the just slightly sub-fluorescent. This colouring seems designed to express the idea of people surfing giddy emotions: they are literally a rosy view of youthful passion. But the young of Cherbourg face reality too. The film's themes are death, separation and disappointment.

Everybody ends up happy enough but with second-class - or at any rate second-hand - love. It is a plot of microscopic proportions but nice symmetries and the outcome is neither saccharine nor shallow. While the film is sweet, it is not sentimental. It is in fact a deep piece of work, and certainly deeper about human, and especially youthful, motivation than Evita and the rest. It is a film for those prepared to cry, to enjoy understated pleasures. Above all it is for those rare moderns: people who are frightened of the modern fashion for aggression and rudeness.

`Umbrellas of Cherbourg' is on release in art houses around the country.

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