by Dan DeMaggio
There are some who will love every bubbly, über-urbane moment of director Irwin Winkler’s biopic of late composer Cole Porter. There are others who will despise it. There is no middle ground here. Some will be simply enchanted by the trip down memory lane, with all the requisite singing and dancing and prancing and oh-so-witty dialogue. Others will fall asleep within the first ten minutes.
Do you appreciate the contributions that Porter left us with, ditties such as “Let’s Misbehave” and “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” and “Begin the Beguine”? Are you enthralled by a complicated love story that features an adoring wife, an abundance of homosexual hanky-panky and a narrative structure that leaves Porter witnessing and commenting on his life as it passes before his eyes in the surreal rendering of a Broadway musical?
If so, you are in for a swinging time. If you’d rather not contemplate the infinite intricacies of love and forbidden desire and tuxedoed men and dolled-up dames sipping champagne while frolicking around Paris and Venice and New York, I would strongly suggest you stay home. Not that you wouldn’t find something interesting in Porter’s double-life or his immense catalog of charming, sweet tunes. It’s just that there is only so much charm and sweetness a person can take before their teeth fall out.
Cole Porter (a nuanced and perfectly cast Kevin Kline) is at the end of his life at the beginning of the film, escorted to a theater by a mysterious fellow (Jonathan Pryce). This “tour guide” essentially lays it all out for the now decrepit but spirited composer by staging his own somewhat macabre musical. He assembles all those near and dear to Porter: the unbelievably patient and long-suffering wife Linda Porter (Ashley Judd, with a face that perfectly matches the glamorous times the Porters lived in), friends like Irving Berlin (Keith Allen) and Monty Woolley (Allen Corduner), and a chorus of boy-toys whom Porter craved as much as his always-handy Scotch whisky.
The story takes us to Paris, where Porter meets his soon-to-be-divorced wife at one of those dinner parties you only see in old movies: women in their pearls and wraps and men in their crisp suits standing around a piano singing slightly ribald songs as they giggle the night away. Cole and Linda’s courtship provides some of the most touching scenes in the film. The fact that Cole was well known to be particularly fond of the fellas adds a fascinating dimension to the couple’s deep love affair.
Cole’s rise to the top of Tin Pan Alley is spiced with an almost never-ending soundtrack of his famous tunes sung by a diverse crop of modern-day crooners such as Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Alanis Morissette and Natalie Cole, to name only a few. The performers mainly appear in the background, setting the stage and providing a sort of monologue to the action and motivations of the players drinking and dancing and loving in front of them. It’s an extremely effective gimmick that injects a richness and elegance to the film.
This exploration of love, in all its glory and all its destructiveness, is the driving force behind a sometimes moving, always classy portrayal of Porter and those who knew him.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, west of Telegraph Road). Call 248-263-2111.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.