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De-Lovely is an original musical portrait of American composer Cole Porter, filled with his unforgettable songs. In the film, Porter is looking back on his life as if it was one of his spectacular stage shows, with the people and events of his life becoming the actors and action onstage. Through elaborate production numbers and popular hits like "Anything Goes," "It's De-Lovely," and "Night and Day," Porter's elegant, excessive past comes to light - including his deeply complicated relationship with his wife and muse, Linda Lee Porter. Written by
Being a heterosexual male under the age of 70, I normally don't like musicals, but I like to keep an open mind. Typically, I will only see a musical if either the movie would be just as good without the music (e.g. "My Fair Lady", "Fiddler on the Roof", "O Brother Where Art Thou", all Marx Bros films), or the music is so good that I don't care about things like acting or plot (e.g. "On the Town", "An American in Paris", "Pal Joey", all Beatles films). Of course, since I have several older female friends and relatives, I've seen quite a few musicals where both the movie and the music are just awful (e.g. "Rose Marie", "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", "Chicago", all Andrew Lloyd Weber films).
But "De-Lovely" is the first musical I have seen where both the music and the film-making are so good as to be great. Of course, it doesn't hurt that all the songs are written by Cole Porter, Broadway's finest composer and the subject of the movie. Although the plays and movies he composed for have mostly been forgotten, the songs from them remain immortal in the hearts of true music-lovers of all ages.
And as far as the movie's concerned, it's near perfect. It gives a sly wink to the conventions of the typical movie musical (i.e. never start or end with a ballad; the hero is more articulate when singing than when speaking), but it does not give short shrift to things like plot, acting and emotional resonance. We are treated to tremendous performances by Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd in the lead roles, and sparkling dialog by Jay Cocks. The cinematography is lush and frankly astounding. And the make-up people did a tremendous job. Only when we see Porter at 90 do we think anyone has dyed their hair or is wearing prosthetics.
The premise of the film has put some people off: Cole Porter (Kline) is sitting at his piano at home, preparing to die, when an omniscient director (Jonathan Pryce) tells him he needs to get ready for the show. The show, of course, is the story of Porter's life, strewn with Porter's songs throughout, sometimes done by the characters in the film as part of their dialog, and sometimes done by professional singers as straight performances.
Porter himself, watching the show, complains that this device is too avant-garde for his taste.
Actually, the previous paragraph is not quite right. The show is not about Porter's entire life, only the parts having to do with his wife Linda (Judd). What we see is not the story of a great composer's professional ups and downs. We get some of that, but that is secondary to the story of a gay man who loves his wife as much as he can, and a woman who stays faithful to her husband despite knowing that he prefers having sex with anonymous men than with her.
For literal-minded people, there will be some problems. The real Cole Porter was short, ugly and couldn't sing; whereas Kevin Kline is tall, reasonably good-looking, and a fine singer. Also, although there is no doubt that Porter is having affairs with men, we never see much more than a few lustful glances. And they cut out the more risqué verses of Porter's songs. We do not hear "Roosters with a doodle & a cock do it" (from "Let's Do It") or "I get no kick from cocaine" (from "I Get a Kick Out of You"). And perhaps Elvis Costello and Alanis Morisette don't have the best voices to sing these songs. But these are mere quibbles compared to the movie's strengths, especially as we are treated to Natalie Cole, Vivian Green and Diana Krall doing superb renditions of Porter's music.
"De-Lovely" is the first musical I have seen that I really liked and where I also found myself humming along to the music. Hopefully, there will be more musicals like it in the near future ("Ray" looks promising in this regard. "Phantom of the Opera" does not). And maybe--just maybe--the genre will be once again embraced by people other than older women and gay men. 10 out of 10.
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