"Writing prose, anything goes," Judge Clark Douglas declared. He promptly received a slap from his editor.
A love that would never die and music that would live forever.
"I'm making such a mess trying to say this. I'm glad I'm not trying to write it as a song."
Facts of the Case
With the aid of a mysterious, possibly supernatural figure (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil), an elderly Cole Porter (Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda) looks back on his colorful life: his marriage to the impossibly understanding Linda (Ashley Judd, Bug), his numerous romantic dalliances with other men, his many successful Broadway shows, his somewhat unsatisfying time in Hollywood and his later years spent in great pain due to a horse riding injury. This is the story of one of America's most treasured songwriters.
The one thing that prevents De-Lovely from being presented as a completely typical, run-of-the-mill musical biopic is its central subject. Much to our benefit (not to mention his own), Cole Porter lived a life relatively free of self-destructive excesses and spectacular rise-and-fall moments that mark the stories of so many musicians. As such, writer Jay Cocks and director Irwin Winkler provide us with a film more interested in accentuating the joyful wit and surprising depth of feeling in Porter's work than in turning the songwriter's life into sordid melodrama.
That's not to say that Porter's life is ignored, but rather that the filmmakers are primarily interested in his life as a source of inspiration for his music. Porter was famously bisexual; a fact which he regarded with no small amount of melancholy. At one point in the film, Kline's Porter sheepishly notes that he could never find every kind of love he wanted in one sex, much less one person. After examining the kind of person Porter was and his approach to romance, many of his lyrics suddenly seem filled with an even richer supply of innuendo.
On the surface, Porter's marriage to Linda may have seemed one of convenience rather than romance: she brought him the appearance of being a heterosexual at time when being openly gay was extremely uncommon, while he brought her a measure of considerable social status. Even so, the film insists that the two really did love each other. Linda knew of Porter's fondness for men before she married him and looked the other way during his many affairs, content in knowing that she had his heart even while his body wandered. Still, even someone as open-minded as Linda struggled when Cole would cross certain lines—it's one thing to sleep with another man; it's another thing entirely to blow off an evening with your wife in order to sleep with another man. The film deals with these inevitable complications with nuance and understanding; a relief considering this material could have so easily turned into cheap artificiality.
The film's structure is compelling, too, as it cleverly finds a way to comment on and subvert musical biopic conventions (Kevin Spacey's Beyond the Sea tried a similar technique to somewhat clumsier effect). Jonathan Pryce makes a splendid master of ceremonies during these scenes, and the approach allows us to transition to various points in Porter's life in an impressively organic fashion. In addition, it gives the filmmakers license to insert Porter's songs into various periods of his life regardless of when they were written; a controversial but ultimately refreshing approach.
I can't imagine a better choice for the role of Cole Porter than Kevin Kline, a similarly witty and intelligent artist who has a particular gift for conveying effortless charm and sophistication. Kline never misses a beat and manages to make quick turns into unhinged glee and deep-rooted bitterness with impressive subtlety. Judd also brings a lot to the role of Linda, conveying some measure of well-hidden disappointment behind her tolerant veneer. Try as she might to be understanding of Cole's needs, she cannot help but wish that she had him all to herself. He secretly feels guilty and she secretly feels jealous, but neither really wants to admit it because they know acknowledging these feelings only creates bigger problems with no solutions.
Excellent as the lead performances are, the primary reason to see De-Lovely is the music. A very generous chunk of Porter's catalogue is worked into the film, and after a while one becomes overwhelmed with the realization of just how many timeless standards sprang forth from his pen. Sometimes Kline performs songs (or pieces of songs) on the piano, sometimes we hear other singers (Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Robbie Williams, Diana Krall and Alanis Morrisette among them) performing in nightclubs or in shows and sometimes we even get some elaborate old-school musical productions (including a performance of "Be a Clown" in which Porter goes all Three Stooges on Louis B. Mayer). I'm particularly fond of the performance of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" which serves as the film's grand finale; it's an appropriately spine-tingling finish that perfectly sets up an understated denouement.
Unlike many other recently released MGM catalogue titles, De-Lovely looks rather impressive on Blu-ray (though this probably has to do with the fact that the film was only made in 2004). Sporting a handsome 1080p/2.35:1 transfer, the film offers excellent detail and impressive shadow delineation throughout (the latter is particularly noteworthy, as some of the film's better scenes take place in very murky lighting). This is a rather good-looking, detailed production for the most part and this Blu-ray release allows viewers at home to further appreciate that fact. The audio is somewhat less remarkable, as some of the bigger musical numbers don't quite have the overwhelming punch they ought to. Still, dialogue is clean and clear and the music is at least robust (if not immersive). Supplements are recycled from the DVD: two commentary tracks (one with Winkler and Kline, the other with Winkler and Cocks), "The Making of De-Lovely" (25 minutes), "The Music of De-Lovely" (15 minutes), two "Anatomy of a Scene" pieces, some deleted scenes, an alternate ending and a theatrical trailer.
De-Lovely isn't exactly the definitive historical account of Cole Porter's life, but it's a most intriguing film on its own terms (and a whole lot better than the silly Cary Grant-starring biopic Night and Day). This is a movie which quietly grows more impressive and satisfying with each viewing. The Blu-ray release is respectable, too.
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