Music lovers often think of their favorite art as a universal language with a unique capacity for bringing people together. Some of today's filmmakers appear to see the matter differently, though. A surprising number of recent movies show musicmaking as an activity steeped in rivalry, competition, and eccentricity.
The latest example is Sweet and Lowdown, the first movie to combine Woody Allen's filmmaking skills with his longtime love of classic jazz. The main character is Emmet Ray, a guitarist of the '30s whose fingers make mischief as well as music. The movie chronicles his up-and-down career and his love affairs with an aggressive society woman and a pretty laundress. Also present are jazz connoisseurs like critic Nat Hentoff and Allen himself, commenting on the fictional Emmet as if he were real.
The film needs this trick, since Allen's flimsy screenplay rarely makes Emmet into more than a collection of jazz-musician clichs - forever drinking, womanizing, and carousing - despite Sean Penn's marvelous acting in the leading role. This weakness extends to the movie's main subplot, centering on the dread Emmet feels at the thought of meeting Django Reinhardt, the superb (and real) guitarist, whose uncanny talent hangs over him like an intimidating shadow. Allen treats the Ray-Reinhardt rivalry as a plot gimmick rather than a psychological reality. It's one more letdown in a disappointing movie.
(The soundtrack CD is available from Sony Classical, incidentally. Its two tracks of authentic classic jazz, played by Bunny Berrigan & His Orchestra and Sidney Bechet with Noble Sissles Swingsters, stand out brightly alongside the 13 newly recorded tracks by the Dick Hyman Group featuring Howard Alden.)
The Legend of 1900, an English-language epic by Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, is another current film to depict music in terms of competition and peculiarity. Tim Roth plays a piano wizard who's born on a steamship in the first year of the 20th century and vows that no temptation will ever lure him ashore.
Directed in the overcooked style that Tornatore first displayed in his popular "Cinema Paradiso," the film musters enough appealing images and music to be reasonably entertaining. But its makers couldn't resist pitting the hero against Jelly Roll Morton, a real-life jazz genius (played here by Clarence Williams III) who initiates a battle to win the applause of the ship's other passengers. The episode turns musicianship into a vulgar contest, contradicting the movie's own message about the inherent satisfactions of artistic achievement.
As a footnote, it's worth noting some recent reportage on the real-life circumstances that inspired "Music of the Heart," the Meryl Streep movie about a schoolteacher who creates a successful music program in a New York City school. Observers familiar with the school assert that it has a history of strong arts education, and that an accurate film would have shown the teacher's partnership with administrators and parents instead of portraying her as a lone warrior fighting apathy and ignorance.
Again, a vision of music as battleground seems to have held sway over commercially minded filmmakers.
'Sweet and Lowdown,' rated PG-13, contains sexual innuendo and other adult material. 'The Legend of 1900,' rated R, contains vulgarity and violence.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society