Friday, February 9, 2007

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Warner Bros. 1981) Warner Home Video

Director, Herbert Ross’ Pennies From Heaven (1981) is a curious musical. It is a remake/update/amalgamation of the 1936 Bing Crosby film vehicle of the same name and Dennis Potter’s 1978 BBC miniseries starring Bob Hoskin. That this film, costarring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters was ill received upon its initial release speaks to the fact that musicals were sadly out of vogue during the early 1980s.

Steve Martin is Arthur Parker, a '30s-era traveling sheet-music salesman whose marriage to Joan (Jessica Harper) mirrors the bleakness of Depression-ridden Chicago. After suggesting to Joan that she go the route of a sultry tart – and having the idea coldly rejected, Arthur embarks on an ill-fated affair with teacher, Eileen (Bernadette Peters).

The static ensnarement of Arthur’s bitter marriage is contrasted by the exuberant versatility in his passions for Eileen. However this ménage a trois becomes increasing complex as Joan gravitates closer to Arthur’s ideal and Eileen becomes more like the old Joan. Worse, Eileen becomes pregnant – a consequence doomed to tragedy in the end.

Martin’s performance is one of his best; a bizarrely conflicted, gentile and greedy showman who secretly lusts for the naughty, guilty little pleasures that his song book of dreams never alludes to. Arthur’s perversions mirror those of The Accordion Man (Vernel Barneris) a forgotten man turned rapist and murderer after his affections for a blind girl are thwarted.

At first maligned by Arthur, The Accordion Man is treated to dinner as something of a half hearted apology. This sequence segues into the film’s most glorious production number. Barneris’ fluid motions and miming of Arthur Tracy’s Pennies from Heaven creates a slow-mo cascade of coinage from the sky – a symbolic prelude to the darkness that is to come into all their lives.

Ironically, the central appeal of this film lies in its nostalgic repertoire of songs that betray 80s pop culture. The dance sequences, accompanied by lip-synced vocals are first rate and staged with a vitality and inventiveness. But the juxtaposition of harsh socio-economic conditions of the Great Depression – the central focus of the film’s plot, against this escapist vintage music, provides a layered absurdity in spectacle onto everyday lives mired within its dismal grime - adultery, prostitution, unemployment, poverty and murder.

These quandaries are magically teleported into eye-candy enchantment. Each musical number mounts its vintage kitsch until the dichotomy between fantasy and reality achieve an impossible split. The results are dark, but dazzling, flawed, yet fascinating; a character study mounted on cardboard and sour cream, a downer – perhaps, but always with a song in its heart.

Previously VHS and laserdisc copies of this film exhibited image quality that was poor to down right dismal. This DVD incarnation is a marginal improvement. Colors can be rich and vibrant. Overall the picture is somewhat softly focused with solid blacks, good contrast levels and slightly yellowish whites.

But film grain is rather intensely rendered. Age related artifacts are quite obvious throughout. Occasionally, edge enhancement and pixelization distract. Excluding the vintage musical tracks, the rest of the audio exhibits a very dated sonic characteristic. Extras include a commemorative featurette with stars reminiscing, as well as a scene specific commentary track provided by film critic, Peter Rainer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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