A while back, in my review of the music-themed film COUNTRY STRONG, I said that what makes a movie often times isn’t the originality of the story but how well it is executed. I think the truth of this is proved again in DE-LOVELY, a musical biopic that hits many of the exact same notes as that film but is more entertaining, more watchable, and more honest, almost entirely because of the quality of the talents who made it.
DE-LOVELY tells the story of the towering 20th century composer, songwriter, and singer Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) as he lays on his deathbed in 1964; the movie takes the form of a musical revue of his life staged by the archangel Gabriel (Jonathan Pryce). With each song and dance, the movie flashes back to a relevant portion of Porter’s life, focusing especially on his turbulent but lifelong relationship with his wife Linda (Ashley Judd).
And what a life. Porter was born in the 1890s to a wealthy family and broke with expectation by studying music and theatre, becoming one of Broadway’s most acclaimed songwriters in the process and penning dozens of memorable tunes like “Kiss me, Kate,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “Anything Goes.” A homosexual, he married Kentucky socialite Linda Thomas in a businesslike arrangement: he gave her status and freedom and she gave him a respectable front.
The movie, however, postulates that Porter and Lewis had a connection that, while not sexual, may still have been a sort of love, or Platonic admiration, and that his songs tell the story of this love. He drinks to excess, uses drugs and stays out late with strange men, and she wistfully tolerates it in the firm belief that it enables the creation of his great songs. This could be an awful, thankless doormat of a part, but Ashley Judd really sells it; we may not entirely understand why she remains in an unfulfilling marriage, but we believe her admiration of her husband and her commitment to his music – a commitment that is truly tested when Porter suffers a crippling fall from a horse, leaving him with a useless right leg and chronic pain that would follow him for the rest of his life.
Drink, drugs, affairs, a troubled marriage, tragedy – this is the stuff of which the most basic, generic musical biopics are made, and yet DE-LOVELY makes it work, mostly by not emphasizing that stuff; like the musicals Porter wrote, the plot is really just there to give a reason for the singing and dancing to happen. In this case, the star of the show is Kevin Kline’s fantastically talented singing and piano playing and Porter’s timeless songs as rendered by both Kline and a large cast of guest singers (including Diana Krall, Elvis Costello, and Alanis Morisette).
Irwin Winkler, who is more famous as the producer of ROCKY than as the director of a handful of forgettable films like THE NET, does competent but not extraordinary work. The big afterlife stage show/framing story is a fantastic excuse for singing and choreographed dance numbers, and he films those well, but the real-life parts of the movie tend to drag; for a movie about a man famous for his wit and his champagne lifestyle, there’s a weird lack of effervescence, of pop and fizz – the time jumps probably don’t help, as viewers have to reorient themselves each time (“okay, now they’re in Paris…is this still the 20s?” “I dunno.”), causing things to feel a bit weightless and detached. Kline and Judd do good work together and share a lot of witty banter, but it often just ends up showing us that these people are witty, which we already knew, rather than sharing their deeper selves. Good thing, then, that Cole Porter himself said it all so well himself seventy years ago; when the movie lets Porter’s charm and music take over, it soars, and the biggest favor the makers of DE-LOVELY do is just to get out of his way.
Video: Musicals are practically defined by their elaborate sets and costumes and DE-LOVELY is no different, so I’m pleased to report that its 2.35:1 transfer looks fantastic, giving us whirling dancing girls and dim candlelit dinners with equal clarity and fidelity.
Audio: The 5.1 DTS-HD audio mix does the job admirably, letting the songs and music swell through the room without impeding the dialogue.
Commentary by Director Irwin Winkler and Kevin Kline – This is a pretty good track; unlike a lot of older directors, Winkler is comfortable in front of the commentary mike and the track takes a form not unlike an interview as he quizzes Kline about the latter’s performance and the work he did to sing Porter’s songs. I was interested to find out that Kline actually attended Juilliard and studied music and composition there, which goes a long way to explaining why he got the part despite not looking particularly like Cole Porter.
Commentary by Director Irwin Winkler and Screenwriter Jay Cocks – This is much more of a making-of track, with the two men bouncing biographical factoids off each other and discussing the challenges involved in compressing a 73-year life down to a two-hour story. I’d never really heard of Cocks outside of knowing he wrote one of my favorite movies, STRANGE DAYS, but it turns out he’s a smart and engaging conversationalist. This track is pretty free of dead air and is definitely the one for aspiring filmmakers to pick as it really gets into the nitty-gritty of the choices that have to be made in a production like this, from casting to choreography.
“The Making of De-Lovely” (25:37) – This is a promo piece made at the time, but it’s got a higher quantity of red meat than most of these things, with lengthy and interesting interviews and plentiful behind-the-scenes footage.
“The Music of De-Lovely” (15:19) – A slightly misleading title; this is actually a collection of interviews with the musical stars like Elvis Costello who make appearances in the show’s big setpiece song-and-dance numbers.
“Anatomy of a Scene” (8:43) – A breakdown of two of the big showstopping musical numbers, “Be a Clown” and “Love for Sale,” with behind-the-scenes footage of the complex choreography and sound mixing required to pull them off.
Deleted Scenes (14:29) – Some worthwhile stuff here, fleshing out Porter’s childhood and his ambiguous sexuality. You can see why it probably had to be cut from the theatrical running time but fans of the movie will definitely enjoy these extra glimpses of these characters.