Not rated because it was meant to be a pilot for a TV show that got turned into a movie because no one was able to release it on TV. That's a very specific example. But the movie is mostly fairly innocent with the exception of the lyrics of some of the songs in Company. Yeah, some of those lyrics don't hold up to time.
DIRECTOR: D.A. Pennebaker
Oh man, the temptation to not write about this palpable when I first started this movie. It's 53 minutes long and was meant to be a TV pilot. I feel like that was a good enough reason to not write about it. Couple that with the idea that this was simply the soundtrack to a Broadway musical made it almost impossible to write about. But then the movie did exactly what it needed to and became super compelling.
It's because of Pennebaker, you know that? As much as I love Woodstock as the ultimate concert documentary, I give so many more props to Pennebaker's Monterey Pop. Golly, I used to play that movie on a loop while working in the store. There were directors who understood how to tell the story behind the art. Part of that comes from the era that they were filming in. There was this yard and Elmer's attitude that everyone kind of had. Working in art was always an uphill battle and that is rarely communicated to the audience. That was the magic. It was about cigarettes, late nights, and the expectation of constant perfection. When Pennebaker turns that camera on his subject, it is a celebration of the hours of pain before going on that stage. Maybe Monterey Pop didn't quite go to that place, but it was about the performance of it all. I don't think I would ever want to watch a Pennebaker that wasn't filmed on something that was probably Super 8. That yard and Elmers? It's in the documentarian's camp too. There's this odd kinship between documentarian and subject that is almost wholly unique in Pennebaker films.
But for a guy who has a theatre degree, I have to say that I would never want to work in theatre itself. I imagine that there were so many tears behind the scenes of Stephen Sondheim productions because he was such a genius. This film has a focus on the frustration of creativity. Sondheim never comes across as a diva or a monster in this film. But he is a perfectionist. I wonder if this is still part of this era or if this is something of a bygone era. But a lot of this movie is watching these amazing, heartfelt performances that are never, ever used. It's not because someone was stopping this music from coming out. It just wasn't...perfect. When I'm talking about perfection, there are moments where it sounded absolutely beautiful and Sondheim would just state, "That was supposed to be an A. Let's do it again." God, just so many faces staring at you and you'd probably make the same mistake or an all new mistake. What starts off as simply listening to the music of Company becomes this horror show of anxiety that just elicits so much sympathy from me.
But the most painful moment is what Pennebaker also focused on. Elaine Stritch was such a legend. A legend. You can feel it in the documentary without anyone saying anything. She's just this presence. Part of it comes with people keeping a wide berth. She's there, down front, singing her face off. She is emoting in every song while other people are holding cigarettes and trying to stay awake. So when her song comes up as the last of the night, fourteen hours in, it is possibly one of the most painful things I have seen documented in film. Stritch is a staple to the stage. She wants to do it better than anyone else there. But even in 1970, she's older than her peers. Her character has a lot more talking than singing, even in her songs. So when her big solo is there, she wants to steal the show...and she just can't. There's something almost violent about making Elaine Stritch sing over and over. It's torture for her. She starts her song a half-step down under the condition that she be given the opportunity to sing it again in the right key. To do things worse, she can't even salvage the song in an easier key. She goes from being this smiley performer to staying a performer, but a hurricane of a performer. There's something manic and violent about her attempts to rescue her voice in these moments.
Yes, the movie gives her the redemption. She comes in the next day, fully rested, and destroys. We hear the song the way it was meant to be sung. We understand what Sondheim and company (no pun intended) were shooting for, especially with Elaine Stritch. But the walls had already come down. We saw how the sausage was made. In that moment, this woman who I didn't know that I idolized became painfully human. There's this look of self-reproach that is heartbreaking. It's not even seeing a legend fall. It's your aging mother coming to terms with her own mortality. She hates her voice and she hates herself in that moment. It's such a bleak third act to a short documentary, but I am also so glad that it was there. It is both a cop out and a necessity to see her successfully accomplish her goal the next day. But the spiraling mania of singing this song --this angry, angry song --just slightly worse every time. When Sondheim calls out that they were hitting diminishing returns, it was putting a pet out of its misery. You know she went home dejected.
It's one night of her life. But how many nights has her value to her profession been questioned. Her body betrays her. As much as this is a story about the dehumanization of the entertainment industry, it is also about people coming to grips with her own mortality. Because there's something in Elaine Stritch's face when she is functional, saying that she loves the brutality of the entire profession. She never gets angry at the producers of the film. That never really enters her mind. Instead, we get film of pure self-loathing. It's painful, yet it carries with it a sense of verisimilitude. If Broadway is about spectacle (It's not), then this is the humanity. It's about mistakes not being okay. That's depressing. But that's okay.
I like depressing.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.