Bang, bang: Judge Bill Gibron shoots this mediocre celebrity biopic down.
The original Odd Couple of popular music.
Salvatore "Sonny" Bono was a scrappy hustler, working in a meat market during the day and hawking his songs during his off hours. Eventually becoming an A&R man for a small Los Angeles record label, Bono immersed himself in the music business. He even began moonlighting as a producer. When he's fired for such mixed employment agendas, Sonny lands a job with Mr. Wall of Sound himself, Phil Spector. Absorbing as many of the musical genius's moves as he could, Bono tried to get his own tunes translated into viable vinyl product. But it wasn't until he met 17-year-old Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre—who shortened her name to Cher—that his pop song luck started to change. Recording a single as Caesar and Cleo ("Please Don't Go"), they become an overnight sensation as the newly renamed Sonny and Cher, and a string of hit singles followed ("I've Got You, Babe," "Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)").
But the times change rapidly in music. Soon, Sonny and Cher were playing Vegas just to stay viable. In 1971, the head of programming at CBS caught the couple's self-deprecating, musical comedy cabaret and felt it was perfect for the small screen. He couldn't have been more right. The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour dominated television in the early '70s. But even with household name success, the duo was growing emotionally apart. By 1975, it was all over. Their marriage ended and so did their show. Essentially, all that was left was the music. The 1999 TV movie, And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story, provides a glimpse at the creative and chaotic life of this once iconic couple.
Perhaps more for their public persona than for their music and media presence, Sonny and Cher have always seemed like a glitch in the cultural landscape; a legendary act without much substance to support their stature. Sure, they had hit records and a rare chemistry that seemed to propel them beyond the occasionally routine feel of their material. But it's what they represented, both as a couple and as an act, that seems to reverberate longer than Cher's mannered vocals or Sonny's ersatz Phil Spector kiddie symphonies.
Conceivably, the most influential link in the creation of the "concept" of Sonny and Cher was their CBS variety show, a veritable family fracas and meltdown—with guest stars, skits, and songs—that aired weekly in prime time on the major television network from 1971 to '74. Outlasting the couples' marriage (they separated during the run of the show), and best remembered for the interpersonal squabbles and put-downs that laced the opening monologue, the image of battling, bruised partners holding it together for the sake of their child (featured closing-song prop Chastity) and their careers really resonated with the rapidly divorcing fan base of '70s adults. Indeed, Sonny and Cher are now less known for their songs—such seminal hits as "Please Don't Go," "Bang, Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down," and the omnipresent "I've Got You, Babe"—and more for their tabloid-tainted images and post-partnership achievements (Cher in film, Sonny in politics). Sadly, most of the material that made their affiliation memorable is all but missing from the sunny, silly biopic And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story. In its place is a superficial, shallow skimming of the enigmatic combo's various early career highlights.
Make no mistake about it; ATBGO is an enjoyable little movie. It moves along at a brisk pace, captures the look and the feel of its varying eras quite well, and features a remarkable performance by Renee Faia as a flawless embodiment of the icon known as Cher. But since this TV movie is derived almost exclusively from Sonny Bono's autobiography of the same name, we are getting a very one-sided view of the beginnings and bad ending of the Sonny and Cher persona. ATBGO would argue that it doesn't take sides, and that it paints Sonny in as bad a light as Cher, but the impression one gets throughout the film is that the future Ms. Bono was a directionless brat rebelling against her high maintenance mother because she knew that, before long, she would become just like her (one look at the single-named icon circa 2004 confirms this fact). Sonny is shown as the bright-eyed optimist working hard to achieve the goals they both have for fame and wealth. Cher is the depressive downer longing for acknowledgment, but then more than willing to toss celebrity aside for her own selfish reasons. In fact, they never seem to be on the same page, either individually or professionally. But like most other aspects of this visual history, ATBGO fails to find any real depth. It's mostly a Cliffs Notes compilation of benchmark moments in the act's short life span, never really getting to the heart of any complex problem. You'll know a little more about Sonny and Cher's careers once the movie is over. But you'll learn very little about what made them such an enigmatic team.
As said before, this television take on Sonny and Cher's lives is as light as the ether, and would practically float away without interesting performances to ground its attempt at truth. Both Jay Underwood (perhaps best known as The Boy Who Could Fly and/or the cowardly Casanova "Bug" from Uncle Buck) and the amazing Renee Faia (a relative newcomer to the acting game) inhabit their roles effortlessly. Underwood doesn't really resemble Bono—he doesn't have Sonny's suggested goombah ethnicity—but he does manage to make you believe in a "thing" called Sonny Bono. This is not an attempt at an imitation or mimicry: it's an actor getting to the heart of a real-life human being. But Faia is the revelation here. She seems to become Cher, to inhabit her skin in a way that instantly recalls the sultry singer. There are several times throughout the course of ATBGO where you'll swear you are watching an actual glimpse of the artist circa the 1960s.
If there is one flaw to Underwood and Faia's pairing is that both lack the physical familiarity we have with the couple to completely sell the recreation. Underwood is too broad to be Bono, and Faia lacks Cher's long-torsoed lankness. Still, these skilled performers lip-sync like champions (the sonic recreations are another atonal bone of contention), and thanks to David Burton Morris' matter-of-fact direction, we do sense a certain pragmatic truth in everything that happens. But And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story is far too ephemeral to provide actual insight into what made Sonny and Cher work, both as a musical act and as a couple. It leaves us understanding less about the dynamic between them personally and musically than we thought we had from our own memories of their act.
MPI presents And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story in a bare bones presentation that is becoming the standard for most mid-level titles. And while there is nothing wrong with giving us the digital equivalent of a VHS version of the film, one would hope that the technical elements take advantage of DVD's depth and sharpness. Sadly, the sound and image here are about on par with cable channel clarity, and the picture often contains an unnecessarily soft transfer. The 1.33:1 framing is not very inventive and the elements are often fuzzy and indistinct. Aurally, the Dolby Digital Stereo sells the songs (obviously performed by some pretty pathetic soundalikes) with vibrancy and tonality, but that's the limit of the atmospheric elements of the film. Especially irritating are the synth-strings used to suggest the Spector Wall of Sound during the sequences showcasing that classic musical invention. Even an untrained ear can tell that the orchestra is playing Casio, not concerto, tones.
If you are at all interested in Cher's humble, stumble beginnings, and why America has been fixated on this vixen for so many decades, And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story will probably not quell your curiosity. But if you're willing to accept its less-than-detailed portrayal, and resolve that this is merely the faux flavorful "essence" of this mysterious couple, then you'll be entertained and enlightened by this basic biopic.
Sonny and Cher are no longer the cultural icons they once thought they were. But And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story tries to recapture their image for modern audiences. It almost works.
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