A movie for every day of the year – a good one
George Gershwin born, 1898
On this day in 1898, the writer of Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, Someone to Watch over Me, Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess was born in Brooklyn, New York. A school dropout, Gershwin, born Jacob Gershowitz, was playing piano in clubs at the age of 15, published his first song when he was 16 and was writing shows by his early 20s. His breadth was amazing – Tin Pan Alley songs, entire Broadway and Hollywood musicals and his “folk opera” Porgy & Bess all poured from him, with Gershwin all the time studying to broaden his range (though notably Nadia Boulanger, Ravel and Stravinsky all refused to teach him, believing they had nothing to offer him). Gershwin’s music is marked out by the influence of jazz – melodically, harmonically and rythmically – but also by the desire to fuse “high” and “low” culture. Gershwin died during surgery to remove a brain tumour at the age of 38, having just written the score to the Astaire/Rogers film Shall We Dance. His music lives on, though whether Steven Spielberg will ever get round to making his proposed biopic remains to be seen (Zachary Quinto is down to play Gershwin). Until then we’ll have to make do with 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue, starring Robert Alda (father of Alan) as the man himself.
Manhattan (1979, dir: Woody Allen)
Though he got going in the mid 1960s, it was only around 1970 that Woody Allen got up to speed. Since then he has produced a film a year, give or take. It’s a huge body of work. And in polls for his best film, Manhattan is usually up there with Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. Like Midnight in Paris, another hymn to a place, it’s a vastly affectionate work, bursting with love, tempered by cynicism, about the denizens of Allen’s home town. Kicking off with the slinky, opening clarinet glissando of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Allen then presents us with a series of picture-postcard views of Manhattan. This is Manhattan as icon, as artistic hub, as inspiration. And, in true Allen style, having set us up, he sucker-punches us with a pay-off – the joke being that his characters are just small people with silly obsessions, human weaknesses, Allen himself playing the twice-divorced man foolishly dating a teenager (Mariel Hemingway) and then getting himself even more hopelessly entangled with the mistress (Diane Keaton) of his best friend (Michael Murphy). Shot in black and white by Gordon Willis, it’s a beautiful film, a romantic film, and a funny one, with Allen reserving his best lines for gags against himself, with sex and personal insecurity the usual subjects – “Let’s fool around,” the 17-year-old Tracy tells him. “Let’s do it some strange way that you’ve always wanted to, but nobody would do with you.” Well it made me smile.
- Meryl Streep plays Allen’s ex-wife
- The amazing cinematography of Gordon Willis
- Allen’s best film?
- The best film about New York
Manhattan – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2013