Magnolia Pictures // 1999 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 19th, 2010
Follow the dream.
Music is a huge cultural touchstone, and, as every film from Singin' in the Rain to Footloose has shown, listening to the right music is essential to being "with it." Harlem Aria tells a fish-out-of-water music story mixed with a buddy film about friendship and race. The film is about as confusing as that sounds, but is not without its charms.
Anton (Gabriel Casseus, G-Force) may have grown up in Harlem, but his heart is in Italy: he doesn't dream of growing up to be a rap star, but instead he only wants to sing opera. He's a little slow, and consequently he lives with his aunt despite being in his late twenties. When she ridicules his dream about being an opera star one too many times, he decides to strike off on his own. He hits the mean streets of Manhattan, where he has his savings stolen by a "street hustler" named Wes (Damon Wayans, Bamboozled). Eventually Anton hooks up with pianist Matthew (Christian Camargo, The Hurt Locker), and together they work the streets, performing for tips. Wes finds out and attempts to "manage" Anton, while Matthew tries to protect him as all three head towards Anton's dream of performing opera.
Harlem Aria is about as weird as you'd expect from a film about an African-American kid from Harlem wanting to sing opera. On the one hand it's a total feel-good, reach-for-your-dreams, carpe-diem story about a young man's fight against the odds. On the other hand it's also a somewhat gritty look at street hustling and the life of catch-as-catch-can homelessness. Add in the fact that Anton is mentally slow and the triangle of Anton-Wes-Matthew runs the gamut of race and class, and you've got a strange little brew of a film.
Despite all the places that could trip the film up, it succeeds surprisingly well. That's totally down to the actors. Gabriel Casseus is all light-and-sunshine, and the guileless sincerity in his operatic dreams is a beauty to behold. He might be lip-synching every moment, but he looks like he's having the greatest time of his life and the feeling is infectious. Damon Wayans goes to the opposite end, crafting a character who is too damaged to be open about anything. Even his accent has been tuned to deny him a place of origin, and his quick-thinking, sweet-talking, street-hustler ways are hilarious at the same time they are grim. In the middle is Christian Camargo, who must mediate between the innocent Anton and the too-jaded Wayans. It's a thankless role in the film, but Camargo makes Matthew more than an arty liberal stereotype. Although the story follows the familiar "coming of age in the big city" template, the interaction of these three actors at the top of their game is surprisingly worth watching.
Despite the excellence of the acting, Harlem Aria is not quite a successful film experience. Part of that is because the film's story, while novel in its operatic focus, doesn't really show the audience a particularly new story. Initial defeat is followed by friendship and eventual success. The other problem with the film is the tone, which shifts from sunny-bright to scary-dark throughout the run time. Certainly Anton's optimism is infectious, but Wes' situation is upsetting enough to make watching the film a schizophrenic experience. I know it was the director's design (he reveals it in the special features), but I definitely feel like the whole film would have been more successful if it had stuck with either of its two extremes.
As a low-budget feature released on DVD over ten years after its film festival premiere, Harlem Aria gets a surprisingly solid release from Magnolia. The transfer definitely shows the film's poorer roots, with a slightly dull tinge to much of the picture, but nothing about the source detracts from the film's watchability. The surround audio does a good job with the film's dialogue, but even better with its musical cues. Everything from the opera to the hip-hop rings out clear and precise, with excellent bass.
Extras include a series of interviews with the cast and crew, including Damon Wayans, Christian Camargo, Gabriel Casseus, Paul Sorvino, and Writer/Director William Jennings. There's a lot of discussion of character development, praise of the other actors, and some production tidbits. None of them are terribly illuminating, but they provide some interesting insights into the film's tone. The other extra is a few minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, presented in a pretty raw state with no context. It seems a bit petty to want more from a film this old and obscure, but a commentary with Jennings and Wayans would have been great, especially considering that the interview material only seemed to scratch the surface of what these guys had to say.
Harlem Aria is an oddly dark feel-good movie about one man chasing his dream. It features a number of excellent performances, but can't quite overcome the slightly trite narrative to become a truly great film. It's definitely worth a rental for fans of the actors or musically oriented coming-of-age films, but most others aren't going to find much here.
Although it doesn't hit all the right notes, Harlem Aria is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R