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An Americanized adaptation of the six-part 1978 British miniseries,
underrated director Herbert Ross' brilliant PENNIES FROM HEAVEN was a
huge commercial flop in US when originally released. Audiences of 1981
did not seem to understand the concept of a depression-era musical,
where the actors lip-synch to original recording from the in 1930s in
elaborate fantasies that are far removed from the actual world in which
they inhabit. Though extremely unconventional, this device is
absolutely heart-wrenching as the dreariness of the real world breaks
away to the brightly-colored, perpetually optimistic fantasy land that
only lives in the lyrics of popular songs. It is the eternal agony of
the dreamer that is expressed; the cold reality that leaves us destined
to reach for the sky, but doomed to walk the earth.
This leaves the film's cast with a difficult task, as they must not only contend with their dramatic art, but also be well versed in a variety of demanding dances and highly disciplined choreography. Comedian Steve Martin is far from the first choice to portray the downtrodden protagonist in any film, but the actor acquits himself expertly in both the film's demanding dance and drama. Mousy Jessica Harper delves into her eternally repressed character so deeply that one is never certain where one stops and the other begins; a triumph of form for any thespian. Renowned dancer Vernel Bagneris is mesmerizing as the film's most ambiguous character, and his density-defying dance to Arthur Tracy's heartbreaking rendition of the title song is one of my favorite moments in any film.
Even more impressive is tough guy actor Christopher Walken's then-unexpected prowess on the dance floor, as he delivers a riotously funny and surprisingly sexy striptease to Irving Aaronson's "Let's Misbehave." In this sequence, Walken pulls off the difficult hat trick of satisfying both seasoned viewers and film neophytes, while still managing to leave both groups wanting more. Best of all, however, is the lovely Bernadette Peters in a superb, Golden Globe award-winning performance. Never before has Peters' slightly tarnished Kewpie-doll personae been better utilized, and the actress' transformation from repressed schoolmarm to hardened prostitute feels both stunningly and horrifyingly real.
Herbert Ross and his creative team manage to bind all of the pieces together into one seamless collage of lost hope, forced optimism, and never-ending desperation. Gordon Willis' cinematography is never less than completely awe-inspiring, and the combined efforts of top-drawer art and set direction and Bob Mackie's seemingly authentic period costumes helps cement the look and feel of desolate decade that the film represents. Over all films in every genre, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN would be a likely contender to receive my vote for the single most underrated film masterpiece of the last twenty years. It exudes all of the contradictory joy and heartbreak that the movies offer, and serves it all up in one stunning presentation.
If you are truly interested in seeing this film, please read the review written by Pauline Kael, who with her unique voice, says everything I am about to try to say, perfectly. This may not be a movie for everybody. First, you may have to have some patience for musicals. And secondly, you may have to have patience for complex people and their problems. I have watched this movie with two friends, and the first yawned everytime the actors opened their mouths to lip sync the beautiful and strange Depression era songs. The second found the role played by Steve Martin heartbreaking, and could not watch the entire film. But I think this movie can be extremely rewarding, and have found myself watching it a least once a year for the past few years. I think the Depression makes an excellent back round in this bittersweet story of blind optimism, and this movie greatly inspires my imagination. I imagine the whole U.S. as it was in the early part of the century, filled with millions of dreamers, greedy for sex and love and money, just like people are now, only now most people have a shot at a least one of those things, and during the depression, beautiful and hopelessly empty dreams were everywhere, as poverty crushed lives right and left. Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters are as connected and magical together as they are in the Jerk. In fact, everything I love about The Jerk is what I love about Pennies From Heaven. Some of the musical sequences are breathtaking, particularly a dance number performed by Christopher Walken ! And the subtle beauty of the last song sung by Steve Martin, I don't know how to describe it. In closing, this movie is not for everybody. But I know I am not the only person out there who will see this movie as the unique gift that it is. Please give it a shot.
When Herb Ross opened "Pennies From Heaven" during Christmas of 1981 it met
with harsh press and public indifference. Many concluded the musical was
But "Pennies," like Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" released two years before, is a key transitional work that juxtaposed the cynicism of the '70s to the exhilaration and escapist fantasy of its buoyant Depression era score.
Steve Martin ran the risk of alienating his fan base by trading in the "Wild and Crazy" guy for the brooding, unfaithful Arthur Parker. But he's a revelation. And what a dancer!
It was no surprise when audiences stayed away.
By all means watch it today, particularly on the new widescreen DVD release. You'll walk away with a greater appreciation of Christopher Walken, Bernadette Peters and especially Steve Martin.
It makes it so much harder to watch this major talent wasting himself in such tripe as "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House."
the more I am amazed. It is the film that Chicago could have been were
it not for its irony. I never saw the BBC original, but fondly remember
Potter's "The Singing Detective." I can understand that Hoskin's
Cockney optimism would fit Pennies' lead character to a tee, but Martin
gives us a hint of the fragility of the song pusher's world, like Willy
Loman, out there on a shoeshine, and for Martin, a song.
The film is innovative and definitely not your father's musical, and the songs, done up not in 1981 over-orchestration but in that tinny sound of early vinyl, just blow me away. After I saw it, I went searching for Follow the Fleet just to see 'Face the Music' in reel time.
This film will not be everyone's cup of tea. It is one of those movies that I say works best when you begin with "Once upon a time."
I am glad I don't live in Frostbite Falls because I might shiver at the thought of such a complex and clever film as PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Made with a massive 1980 budget of $22 million and all of it up there on the screen, this genuine masterwork is one of the great unappreciated and misunderstood films of its day. The biggest hurdle the film could not overcome (then) was the casting of comedy stars in Art Deco darkness. Steve Martin had just scored a bullseye in the wild comedy THE JERK. For mainstream audiences to even then turn around and slightly embrace the sad loneliness of PENNIES' aching melancholy is impossible. PENNIES' failed and was consigned to misfire history. Today in 2005 this film deserves to stand with CHICAGO or even MOULIN ROUGE in its sly dark new century crowd pleaser theatrics. It is a film for this century and if audiences today have the chance to appreciate and applaud it's brilliant creative slant and dramatic spectacle, it will be a success. Possibly in the same ironic fantasy manner of THE PIRATE or YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, or LADY IN THE DARK of the 40s, ITS ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER from 1955, maybe THE BOYFRIEND of the 70s and even the original 1988 HAIRSPRAY by John Waters, PENNIES' belongs to that rare style of musical spectacle: the emotional fantasy with a dark satire core. Truly great.
Much has already been written here saying positive things about Pennies
From Heaven, but the best reason for the excellence of the film lies in
the fact that the screenplay was written by Dennis Potter. I give the
film a 9 and the BBC series a 10+++. There is so much more to this
story than can be told in a single film.
Potter wrote what I consider the two most brilliant series ever on television, Pennies From Heaven starring Bob Hoskins and The Singing Detective starring Michael Gambon. Both were dark films with more than their share of irony. Potter interjected popular music of the eras into the story lines in their original versions lip-synced by the actors. These films aren't for casual viewers. You need to keep your brain attached and operating all the time, so smart is Potter's writing. Those of us who make the effort are rewarded with stories of sheer genius.
The jump from England in the BBC mini-series to the US in the films works better than I would have imagined. I give all the credit to the producers who had the good sense to have Potter do the screenplays for both films. They are translated to a similar mood and setting and the music is well integrated. I think the adaptation of The Singing Detective is more like the BBC version because the numbers aren't so overproduced as in Pennies From Heaven. On the other hand, the cast of Pennies is a powerhouse of musical talent with Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken and the surprisingly good Steve Martin. With lesser talent in both the writing and acting the big production numbers would have overwhelmed the story.
Watch the US films first and then follow them up with the BBC versions. Make the intellectual investment and reap your rewards. These BBC series are brilliant. If you need more mental stimulation after these two series have boosted your IQ, try to hunt down Lipstick On Your Collar. This is a later Dennis Potter BBC series based on what turned out to be the "final straw" in the fall of the British Empire, the loss of Egypt and the Suez Canal to a considerably out manned and out gunned Egyptian army. This, too, could work as a film (obviously not translated to the US), but only if Dennis Potter could be reincarnated to do the screenplay.
One reason musicals have been going out of style for the past 30-odd years is that audiences simply don't buy the escapism and optimism that permeated the genre in its heyday. This lavish and biting 1981 work solves the problem brilliantly by using the upbeat nature of '30s popular song ironically. The production numbers, and there are many, are toe-tapping, feel- good entities that play in devastating counterpoint to the somber narrative. The production design is amazing, Martin a surprisingly sympathetic Everyman with some rough edges, Peters perfection, Walken amazing in his one scene (imagine what a brilliant Pal Joey he would have made). But then, everybody in this movie seems to be performing at his peak: Even Marvin Hamlisch, whose musical scoring is usually so soppy and obvious, comes through. A salute, too, to Herbert Ross and his wife, Nora Kaye, for employing so many wonderful stage- trained dancers who seldom got a chance to shine on film: Robert Fitch, Vernel Bagneris, and Tommy Rall, who was so splendid in the movie of "Kiss Me, Kate." As far as I'm concerned, the movie's a masterpiece -- but nobody went to see it, and Ross reacted by making nothing but safe, mainstream entertainment for the rest of his life. At least this one shows the audacity and power of which he was capable.
Unusual story combining drama, musical numbers and fine performances by
concerned. This had to have been one of the first times that Steve Martin
was allowed to show that he is so much more than just some guy with an
through his head, a fact that has been demonstrated time and time again
the past 20 years.
This film physically depicts the depression era in beautifully muted tones and powerfully evokes the desperate feelings of people trying to make ends meet during hard times. Martin gives a dead on performance of a man with nothing left in his moral bank account. Arthur does and says whatever it takes to gain the instant gratification he constantly seeks.
As for the ensemble musical numbers, let me just say that even Busby Berkeley might have been envious. Martin and Peter's turn at Fred and Ginger was well beyond adequate and Walken's tap dance number is worth the price of admission.
I watched this movie the other evening after not having seen it for several years. I was amazed at how much it had improved with age. This movie could almost certainly never be made today and, in fact, I find it hard to believe it was ever made. Hollywood rarely takes chances of any kind and this movie had to have been a huge gamble, even in 1981.
Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters star in this musical that is anything buy light in subject matter. The film is set in Depression-era America with Martin as a sheet music salesman who lives day to day through music and dreams. He is married, but takes up Peters as a mistress. The musical numbers are unique in that the actors do not sing, except in the end, for themselves, but merely lip-sync and dance to the music of the 30s. The desperation of the times is apparent everywhere, other than in the fantasy world that the characters create for themselves, which enable them to escape the harsh realities of life. Christopher Walken fans take note. He does a dance of exuberant decadence that should knock most people's socks off due to his surprising ability.
Has it been over a decade since a really good movie
musical has come out? "Evita" is an extended music
video; and "The Bodyguard" is a stale idea from the
seventies that Whitney Houston was expected to
salvage with her singing. When you look back, the
movie musical of recent note has taken shelter in
the imagination of the animated film industry.
(Disney put out almost all of the them.) But for a
good musical with real actors, I can only remember
movies like Jonathan Demme's "Stop Making Sense"
which is more a concert movie than a musical;
"Bizet's Carmen" which is more filmed opera; and
"Amadeus," and that's going back more than fifteen
Where are the talents that could create new musical happenings in the movies? I'm not a fan of hip-hop or rap, and there's probably enough music videos playing the stuff to fill miles of film. But its place in big screen movies is ancillary--part of the score, or a director's afterthought. If there is a movie musical that suggests what possibilities the right people with a good idea and the talent can draw from the tradition, it's "Pennies from Heaven."
This is a stunning work of movie art. To find musical numbers this evocative, you need to go back to something like "Top Hat." It's a supernal pleasure just recalling Vernel Bagneris slow-dancing in a shower of scintillating tokens or how surprised I was at the dexterity of Christopher Walken's hoofing or how close to Steve Martin's Arthur I felt when he opens his mouth and out pops Connie Boswell's haunting refrain.
I cannot deny that I find the "reality" Dennis Potter has created jarring, and by the time, Arthur paints rings around his revolted wife Joan's nipples, you feel director Herbert Ross ("Goodbye, Mr. Chips") should have spared Joan--and us--this indignity with a more discreet camera setup. If their point is to slap us back to reality after a wonderful flight of fancy, it needs to be more pointed and funnier. It's not, and some people find the lurid aspects of Potter's creations insulting. It may explain why this movie was a flop at the box office. Maybe it was too coarse and too precious all at once.
But when Ken Adams can pull together some of the most serviceably beautiful sets ever to grace a movie; when Bob Mackie pulls out all reserves and furnishes the cast with some of the most sumptuous costumes they'll ever wear; when Marvin Hamlisch makes bright, smart choices of music memorabilia; when the incomparable Gordon Willis creates the kinds of visions that leave you glued to the screen; why quibble? The state of the musical may be to some on its last breath, but with "Pennies from Heaven" to look back on, it seems to be saying "All is not lost." If the right people come together, there are wonderful things to imagine on the horizon.
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