Monday, January 24, 2022


"We only pass this way once, might as well pass by in a Cadillac."

Two years before Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) gave us an epic vision of America viewed through the “politics is show-biz” prism of the Country & Western music scene, Canadian television producer/director Daryl Duke (The Silent Partner -1978) and novelist Don Carpenter (Hard Rain Falling - 1966) made their collective feature film debuts with the audacious indie character-study Payday
Chronicling 36 full-throttle hours in the life of hell-raising, second-tier country music star Maury Dann (Rip Torn), the focus of Payday’s lens may be narrower than Nashville’s, but in its depiction of the squalid glamour of an entertainer’s life on the road—fast money, fast food, & fast-living—it provides a picture of '70s American culture that is no less funny, raw, or keenly-observed. And thanks to Torn's career-best performance, it feels considerably more authentic. For this road-movie odyssey (described by one critic as “A study in amorality without a moral”) Duke and Carpenter have devised a wittily apt visual metaphor for Nixon-era America: an all-white Cadillac speeding heedlessly along a highway at 95-miles-an-hour on a path predetermined to be the road to success, but is just as likely a collision course headed straightaway to a dead-end.
Rip Torn as Maury Dann
Ahna Capri as Mayleen Travis
Michael C. Gwynne as Clarence McGinty
Elayne Heilveil as Rosamund McClintock
Cliff Emmich as Chicago

Imagine a Nashville sequel that abandons the ensemble format and instead focuses entirely on Keith Carradine’s callous, womanizing balladeer, Tom Frank—his future, burn-out years—and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what Payday is like. 
Maury Dann is a 35-year-old country-western singer/songwriter who’s achieved an appreciable degree of success in his career (his face recognizable enough to get him out of speeding tickets, his name drawing sizable crowds and an unbroken chain of disposable, star-struck groupies to his roadhouse gigs); but he’s nonetheless driven just a little bit crazy by his so-close-you-can-almost-touch-it proximity to the " big time." 

A growly crooner of shrewdly sincere songs of homespun virtues, the oilily charismatic Dann...a toxic combination of hard-working and hard-living…tours the one-night-stand honkytonk circuit of the Deep South in his chauffeured, cowhide-interior Cadillac, girlfriend-of-the-moment in tow, subsisting on pot, pills, booze, junk food, and sex. More savvy businessman than impassioned artist, Dann is not without talent, but ambition, greed, and love of the perks of privilege have him living for the payday. And it’s not difficult to understand why. 
Maury Dann & the Dandies
Cocooned from both truth and consequences by a small but selflessly loyal entourage of enablers, Dann’s fame and wealth afford him both the means and wherewithal to support his ex-wife and three children (whose ages he can’t keep straight) while providing his pill-popping mother with ample supplies of amphetamines. All with plenty left over for payola payouts to influential disc jockeys and buying himself out of the numerous scrapes his hair-trigger temper and violent mood swings get him into.

Payday kicks off with Dann already three months into his breakneck tour, in Alabama and headed for Nashville where the success he’s desperate for beckons in the form of a vaguely promised appearance on Johnny Cash’s TV special (Dann bitterly hints that he and Cash have been kicking around for roughly the same amount of time). The goal is clear, but the challenge faced is whether or not Maury Dann can steer clear of self-destruct mode long enough to make it.
Were someone to ask me what I like so much about ‘70s films and what I think distinguishes them from motion pictures made in any other era, I would point to Payday as a film representative of precisely those inarticulable qualities I love so much, gravitate to, and often only find in the movies made during the New Hollywood years. What I mean is that I like when a movie feels as though it were made because the filmmaker had a story they wanted to tell. Not because of market research, the desire to make a mint, or as a result of lawyers fashioning a "package" out of the merging of mutual advantage contracts.
Payday suffered at the box-office because it didn't fit into any particular genre and its distributor couldn't find a way to market it.   
Henry O. Arnold as Ted Blankenship
A former waiter and longtime Maury Dann fan who aspires to be a songwriter

With so many of today's movies being greenlit only after their market viability has been analyzed to the nth degree, my perhaps rose-colored nostalgia for the '70s stems from the number of unique, personal, difficult-to-categorize, and downright weird movies that came out of that era.  
That being said, how is it then that I only got around to seeing Payday for the first time just a couple of years ago?
I remember when Payday came out in 1973. It was one of a spate of intimate, personal films released during the Vietnam/Nixon years that sought to challenge Hollywood’s outsized and outdated “mythic hero” tradition by training its lens on the small, often ineffectual lives of ordinary people (Kansas City Bomber, The Last American Hero, Play it As it Lays, Electra Glide in Blue). 
Jeff Morris as Bob Talley, a member of Maury Dann's band
Actor Jeff Morris would play another country boy named Bob in 1980s The Blues Brothers
- proprietor of the roadhouse Bob's Country Bunker

Payday--whose newspaper ads targeted the arthouse crowd in urban markets while (misleadingly) pitching itself as a Burt Reynolds-style redneck romp in rural districts--received laudatory reviews on its release, was selected to be shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and at the end of the year, appeared on many critics' Ten Best lists. Yet despite bearing all the potential earmarks of becoming a sleeper hit or "critic's darling" underdog during awards season, nominations were not forthcoming, audiences stayed away in droves, and Payday wound up disappearing from theaters faster than a knife fight in a phone booth. (Just keepin' in the spirit of things.)
Why didn’t I see it? Well for one, there were considerably bigger cinema fish for this teenage movie buff to fry in '73: The Exorcist, The Last of Sheila, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Way We Were, Lost Horizon. Second, not only did the idea of a movie set in the world of country music fail to grab me (it would take Nashville to kickstart my love of country music), but I didn’t know anything about its director, and the only person in the cast I’d ever heard of was Rip Torn. And what little I’d seen of him in supporting roles in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) and You’re A Big Boy Now (1966) was impressive, but not enough to convince me that seeing Payday was a better weekend option than going to see The Poseidon Adventure for the fifth time. 
On the Road Again
Dann and his ever-busy road manager McGinty
Of course, after finally seeing Payday (three times, so far), I truly regret having missed out on the opportunity to see it on the big screen. And I wonder how seeing it would have impacted my experience of Nashville two years later. Payday impressed me with the way it manages to be so familiar (A Face in the Crowd, The Rose, I Saw The Light: The Story of Hank Williams), yet via its dimensional characterizations and insightful script, was capable of catching me totally off guard. Narratively, nothing went where I expected. I know my 15-year-old self would have been thoroughly enraptured by it all. I think Payday is one of the best films of 1973, and Rip Torn was robbed of a Best Actor Oscar nomination (especially when I think of Robert Redford's department store mannequin performance in The Sting clogging up the category that year).  
In one of the film's best scenes, real-life Tennessee disc jockey Earl Trigg portrays an unctuously coercive fictional radio DJ named Bob Dickey. Earl Trigg is a former child actor (billed as "Tookie" Trigg) who appeared in some 30 features and Our Gang comedies.

Out of a naïve-but-purposeful desire to be in a music star’s orbit, a central character in Payday allows herself to be swept up in the counterfeit glamour of Maury Dann’s chaos-addiction lifestyle, whisked away in his Cadillac headed for god-knows-where…without money, a change of clothes, or notice given to the 5 and Dime where her cashier services are anticipated the following day. 
Watching Payday for the first time felt a little like that.
Payday unfolds in a non-stop, barely-time-to-catch-your-breath style ideally suited to the subject matter. An intimate, almost documentary style that made me feel as though I had been invited to see a country singer perform (I’m crazy about Rip Torn’s voice! It’s not good, but it’s right) only to find myself the unwitting recipient of a front-row seat to the spectacle of a dishonorable man’s disintegration.
Maury Dann - Living for the Payday
McGinty - (referring to roadhouse owner) He wants a piece of the gate next time out.
Dann - People in hell want ice water, too.

Like its lead character, Payday hits the ground running and sweeps the viewer up in the garish allure (or morbid curiosity) of its authentically-rendered backstage view of life on the road. A world of grungy motel rooms with wood-paneled walls and chenille bedspreads that play host to after-hours poker parties, informal business meetings, impromptu jam sessions, and drunken sexual assaults cloaked in fame entitlement and groupie expectation. Rooms littered with beer cans, Jack Daniels bottles, cigar butts, Hardee’s cups, and fast-food wrappers. Capturing the isolated, on-the-move, “what town are we in?” feeling of being on tour, Payday depicts Dann’s life as an episodic string of personality-revealing vignettes. A kind of road odyssey of self-confrontation headed down the road toward the inevitable day of reckoning. 
Girlfriend #1 confronts potential girlfriend #2
Most movies set in the music industry are about performers who can’t handle success. What eats at Maury Dann is not having achieved the kind of success he thinks he deserves. Indeed, one senses that behind Dann’s manic restlessness, quick-trigger temper, and hell-raising antics, is a man terrified of standing still. As the late Daryl Duke states on the DVD commentary, if Dann ever stopped moving, he'd be forced to confront the fact that he's a failure. Certainly, a failure as a husband and a father and as a human being...but also in failing to achieve the stardom that's obviously so important to him. Realizing that it will forever be out of his reach, fading further into the distance with each passing year.
Just a liquored-up good ol' boy firing a gun out the window of a speeding car for fun
Like all malignant narcissists, Maury Dann goes through life challenging
 fate with the dare: What can't I get away with?

Though my love for dark-themed movies is clear and well-chronicled, I nevertheless understand that most people, when faced with a movie whose main character is a lout and a heel, ask why they would want to spend time in the celluloid company of someone they’d cross the street to avoid in real life. 
Eleanor Fell as Galen Dann
Maury's ex-wife and mother to Billy, Kitty, and Elmore (Rip Torn's real name)

But the anti-hero trend in ‘70s films was always less about liking or even relating to the character in question; it was about confronting the "hero" myths we've bought into and examining the lies we tell ourselves through our traditional screen idols. The purpose served by the heroes of mainstream films was to perpetuate myths of honor and valor that flattered the audience's image of themselves. Hollywood in the '70s continued to lean into metaphorically simple concepts of evil and heroism: villains wore black hats, good guys were white, heteronormative males in the John Wayne tradition.

But the '70s reality is the same as it is today...the real villains don't wear black hats. They look like the people we had been taught to put our trust in and/or look up to: the politicians, the powerful businessman, the police, the celebrity, the military, the clergy. The '70s anti-hero...a by-product of the betrayals of Vietnam and Watergate, sought to make us look at the dark side of American myth and the traditional hero--in this instance, the family-values country-western singer--and in doing so, look at the dark side of ourselves as a society and a country.
Striking a Deal with the Devil
If you're famous and rich in America, there's no moral bottom
 you can hit that cannot be forgiven, enabled, or covered up 

In Payday Maury Dann is America. Or rather, those hypocritical aspects of American culture that seem to produce, reward, and encourage the Maury Dann’s of the world while simultaneously lying to itself about the supposed value it places in simpler virtues.
In Dann's relentless pursuit of money, fame, and the privilege perks of same (aka power) are written the very tenets of America's success ethic. Does it matter that in the achievement of these things, Dann has become a cruel and remorseless monster? Not likely. For Dann has learned--like most politicians, religious "leaders," and pop-culture celebrities--that for a public that loves to be lied to, having the appearance of being principled and moral is far more important than actually being those things.
Two Sets of Laws / Two Americas
Maury signs an autograph for a starstruck cop and gets out of a ticket in the bargain. Payday features several scenes showing Dann always being able to use his fame and wealth to skirt the law and avoid the consequences of his actions

It strikes me as both purposeful and perfect that Payday is set in the world of country music. As a genre that has long aligned itself with (and exploited) the so-called Christian, blue-collar, America's heartland, family values myth, it serves as the perfect illustrative metaphor exposing how America's persistent lies to itself have become its truth. The ethics of country singers are no more resistant to the usual temptations and corruptions of wealth and fame. In fact, their tendency to cloak themselves in the flag, the Bible, and those ever-illusory, gun-totin' "family values," likely makes them more susceptible to the sins of duplicity and hypocrisy.
Sex, Drugs, Country & Western

Rip Torn’s raw, lived-in performance is the electrifying core of Payday. Bringing a homegrown gravitas to the character, Torn’s is the type of bravura screen performance given by an actor finally granted a role on scale with his talents (Don Carpenter wrote it with Torn in mind, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role). He's positively riveting. And though it sounds like just the kind of quote-ready critical assessment that movie publicity departments pray for, I genuinely think Rip Torn's performance in Payday is one of the best American screen performances of the '70s. 
Adding considerable support is Ahna Capri as Dann’s vigilant girlfriend, whose continued, hawk-eyed efforts to guard her interests are both amusing and reminded me of a pragmatic, more resilient version of Ann-Margret’s Bobbie Templeton in Carnal Knowledge. Very strong performances are also given by Elayne Heilveil, Michael Gwynne, and Cliff Emmich.

Payday is the day you get what your earn, what you work for, what you deserve. If you’re lucky, what you have coming to you on payday is what you expect. For the morally and spiritually bankrupt characters in Daryl Duke and Don Carpenter's brilliant first film, Payday might just be Judgement Day.

Four of the original country songs in Payday’s soundtrack were written by the late, great Shel Silverstein: playwright, poet, cartoonist, author, and Grammy Award-winning songwriter (1969 Best Country Song “A Boy Named Sue”). Payday showcases the Silverstein compositions - “Slowly Fading Circle”, “Baby, Here’s a Dime”, and “Lovin’ You More” (whose chorus “I’m lovin’ you more but you’re enjoying it less” is [for those too young to take notice] a comic takeoff on the 1960’s Camel cigarettes slogan “Are you smoking more but enjoying it less?”). 
My personal favorite is “She's Only a Country Girl,” a catchy, drawling, earworm of a song that got stuck in my head for days after seeing this. It sounds like a song Henry Gibson's Haven Hamilton might have sung in Nashville
Payday features three more songs by different composers: “Road to Nashville”, “Flatland”, and “Payday” - leaving me wishing the film had been met with a little more success and produced a soundtrack album.

Elayne Heilveil, who portrays the naive-as-a-fox Rosamund McClintock in Payday, was the original Nancy Maitland (later played by Meredith Baxter) in the 1976 miniseries Family. That's her on the far right of this cast portrait that's so oddly staged that I suspect it's a composite. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2022

Saturday, January 1, 2022


Legendary composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim appears in remarkably good spirits considering what Elizabeth Taylor is likely doing to one of his songs in this Graham Morris photograph capturing an August 1976 London recording session for the Harold Prince movie adaptation of Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Stephen Sondheim
March 22, 1930 - November 26, 2021
Countless obituaries, tributes, eulogies, and “In Memoriam” articles reiterated the indisputable fact that the death of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim signaled the end of an era in American Musical Theater. And indeed, the breadth of his impact is difficult to overstate. Stephen Sondheim almost single-handedly changed the look, sound, and content of the American musical. Transforming the popular medium that once strove for nothing deeper than “pleasing the tired businessman” (i.e., to amuse and entertain, not instruct or strain the brain) into a sophisticated and challenging art form illuminating complex societal themes and exploring the darker corners of the human condition. It’s impossible to imagine the likes of his particular genius will ever be seen again. 

But to me…a gay man who discovered the brilliant composer-lyricist during my floundering adolescence in the Sexual Revolution/Gay Liberation ‘70s, it’s hard not to look upon the obvious tragedy of Stephen Sondheim’s death at age 91 as simultaneously representing a kind of triumph. A triumph of survival, a triumph of the indomitability of the creative voice, and certainly a triumph of a queer artist's personal journey (from being closeted, coming out in his 40s, to [shades of "Marry Me a Little"] getting wed at the age of 87) in a nearly 70-year career. 

For what’s not triumphant in being a gay man surviving the devastation of the AIDS plague of the ‘80s and living to the astoundingly ripe old age of 91? It’s certainly a triumph that the trajectory of Sondheim’s long career dramatizes the struggle of the American LGBTQ experience: Sondheim’s first Broadway show (1957s West Side Story) was the creation of no less than FOUR societally-mandated closeted gay and bisexual men. By the time of his death, Sondheim was an out-and-proud, world-renowned public figure legally wed to his husband of four years.
Sondheim with the cast of the movie version of Into the Woods
As one of Broadway’s most lauded composer-lyricists (8 Tony Award wins - including an Honorary Lifetime Achievement in Theater Award, 8 Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and more) Hollywood beckoned Sondheim from the start. And of his 18 theatrical productions, six have made it to the screen to date. The work he created specifically for the movies includes composing a score for French director Alain Resnais, writing original songs for several feature films (one even garnering him an Oscar win), and collaborating on the screenplay of a murder mystery with his friend and rumored lover Anthony Perkins. 
A 1970s Polaroid featuring Anthony Perkins, Pat Ast, and Marisa Berenson surrounding Sondheim at the piano. Sondheim met Tony Perkins in 1966 when he wrote the words & music for Evening Primrose, an original made-for-TV musical starring Perkins and Charmian Carr (of The Sound of Music).

The relative or comparative success/failure of Hollywood’s adaptations of Sondheim’s work has sparked much unnecessary debate over the years. In the end, it's Sondheim himself who comes across as the level-headed mediator, what with his understanding of the differences between the mediums of film and theater, and therefore being considerably less bent out of shape than his acolytes by the often necessary compromises required in bringing his theatrical works to the screen. 

I think evidence of Sondheim's easygoing philosophy can be found in his music. 
One of the more consistent themes running through Sondheim's work is that, while idealism is both an elemental and essential part of being an artist, a lover, a character in a fairy tale, a dreamer, a suburban married couple, or even a sociopathic killer; the achievement of perfection itself is something unattainable. There can never be such a thing as perfection or "happily ever after" where human all their flawed complexity...are involved.
So many of his musicals end with characters thinking they are “settling” for the less-than-perfect when the overarching theme stresses that once one abandons illusion and fantasy (which makes us question whether we're happy "enough" or if our happiness is the "right kind"), it opens us up to recognizing the often very real happiness that already exists in our lives. Usually, to be found in the only place it can ever truly be: in the here and now, wherever that is, and whatever that may look like. Accepting who we are, what we have, and finding that there is both happiness and contentment within the imperfect, is, I think, the key to happiness and what it means to grow up.   

“Feed the plot to the fish. Life is not what the movies make it seem. Still, we got Dorothy Gish. We can lean back and settle for the dream.”   

"In The Movies" - from Sondheim's first musical Saturday Night - 1955 (unproduced until 1997)

“In the Movies” is a comic musical number calling attention to the discrepancy between life as we know it and life as depicted on the big screen. In the end, the song makes the case that wishing for reality to be more like the movies is an exercise in futility when it’s precisely life’s deficiencies that make movies so pleasurable (and necessary!). Better to relax, sit back, and enjoy these idealized fantasies for what they are. Why dwell on the unhappy thought that life is so seldom as magical as the movies when the greatest gift that movies offer us is the magic of fantasy? Why not just sit back and “settle for the dream”?

That repeated lyric, with its echoing of the Sondheimian ethos of accepting things as they are…accepting the things you cannot change, feels just right for the title of my brief look at the uneven cinema legacy of the man who became the face of American Musical Theater.   
In 1971 I fell in love with the OBC album of Sondheim's Company (1970).
In 1993 got to see the original cast perform it in concert.
I suspect theater fans will always prefer their Sondheim onstage and lament that his film adaptations inevitably fall short. And I can see their point. Live theater presents the uncompromised vision and is different each time you see it. But live theater is not as available to some as it is to others. Certainly not as available as film. 
I'm a movie guy and a Sondheim fan to boot, so my attitude is that while I would love it if every screen adaptation of a Sondheim show was "perfection," there is no such thing. And certainly, when it comes to film, what's done is done. There's no matinee the following day where problems can be fixed.  

In any discussion on the topic of whether the movies have ever done justice to the work of Stephen Sondheim, my answer would be a qualified no. But instead of blocking my blessings by playing "It Would Have Been Wonderful," how much better it is for me to sit back and simply appreciate the rare gift it is to have any of Stephen Sondheim's genius preserved on the screen at all. It's a dream I'm more than happy to settle for.  

Directed by Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, and adapted from the Tony Award-winning musical that marked Sondheim’s Broadway debut. As I fairly exhausted the topic of West Side Story in my previous essay (hint: I'm crazy about this movie) the only thing to add here is that the triumph of this now-classic, Academy Award-winning screen adaptation (a whopping 10 wins including Best Picture and Best Director) still finds Sondheim critical of his own efforts, not the film. Serving as lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s compositions, Sondheim has said he is embarrassed by the “poetry” of the language he put into the mouths of street kids. He has also stated that many of the changes screenwriter Ernest Lehman brought to the film (specifically as to where certain songs were re-situated) are improvements on the stage version. 

GYPSY - 1962
Directed by Mervyn Leroy and adapted from the 1959 Ethel Merman Broadway musical. Hitting two for two, Sondheim’s second Broadway hit (this time supplying the lyrics to Jules Stein’s music) became his second movie adaptation and second collaboration with Natalie Wood. Controversially cast in place of the bombastic Merman, the vocally-manipulated Rosalind Russell. A delightful, relatively faithful adaptation, Gypsy is another film I’ve exhaustively covered in an earlier post (hint: I’m crazy about it), my only gripe being that it cuts one of my favorite songs “Together Wherever We Go.” 

Directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night) and adapted from the hit 1962 Broadway musical that won 5 Tony Awards including Best Musical. I confess I’ve never been particularly fond of this "Roman farce meets vaudeville schtick" musical comedy. The frenetic mugging and hamminess of Zero Mostel always crack me up, as do the old-fashioned jokes. But the plot and Lester’s shambolic direction and handling of the musical sequences (almost dutifully, as if he’s trying to get them over with as quickly as possible) make this an adaptation I welcome, but don’t necessarily appreciate. “Forum” marked Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway show as both composer and lyricist. 

Directed by Herbert Ross from an original screenplay by Stephen Sondheim and actor Anthony Perkins.  Sondheim combined his passion for puzzles and games with his early experience writing for television in the ‘50s (he wrote several episodes of the comedy program Topper) and came up with a doozy of an all-star whodunit set on the French Riviera. The Agatha Christie-style plot is as complex and twisty as any Sondheim melody, and it’s easy to imagine Perkins contributing a great deal to the gossipy, insider feel of the film's movie-industry setting and its cast of unsympathetic opportunists. The Last of Sheila is another film I’ve written about in a previous post…and by now you know the drill. I’m crazy about it.

Directed by Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad). Sondheim was approached by Resnais (who professed to be a fan of the composer) to write the period score for this stylish crime noir set in the early ‘30s and based on the life of real-life political swindler, Serge Alexandre Stavisky. Resnais’ film is an Art Deco visual feast to which Sondheim contributes a breathtakingly lush, sweepingly romantic score. Even if you never have the opportunity to see the sumptuous motion picture, you owe it to yourself to get your hand on the soundtrack. The music is beyond exquisite. 

Directed by Herbert Ross and based on the 1974 Nicholas Meyer novel that posits Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud joining forces to solve a crime. Sondheim contributes a song sung by a high-class madam (French nightclub legend Régine Zylberberg) at a whorehouse soirée. The liltingly raunchy tune “I Never Do Anything Twice (The Madam’s Song)” recalls the comic double-entendre vulgarity of "Can That Boy Foxtrot!" (a song excised from his show Follies). For all its risqué wit "The Madam's Song" is featured for mere seconds in the film. Happily, the song can be heard in its entirety on any number of Sondheim CD collections out there. 

Based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer NightA Little Night Music won Harold Prince a Tony Award for his direction of the 1973 Broadway production (it won 6 awards total, including Best Musical). But his somewhat lumbering direction of the film adaptation won him nothing but critical brickbats. One of Sondheim’s most popular and accessible shows (a happy ending!) features a score of waltz-time melodies so sublime, that the flaws of the movie adaptation never bothered me. I'm in the majority-of-one camp that finds the film version to be absolutely enchanting, the rewritten song "The Glamorous Life" and new lyrics for "Night Waltz" being worth the effort alone.   

REDS  - 1981
Directed by Warren Beatty. Sondheim was originally enlisted to write the entire score for this love story set during the early days of the Russian Revolution. Sondheim declined– score chores then taken over by David Grusin – but did contribute a delicate instrumental theme song “Goodbye for Now.” Instrumental and vocal versions of the song appear in several Sondheim collections. The song's boon and bane is that it does what all movie music should do-- enhance the drama of the story without calling attention to itself. But when it comes to Sondheim, I'm not sure being unaware of him is what I'm after. 

Directed by Warren Beatty. In Sondheim’s second collaboration with Beatty, the director/star again wanted the composer to write the entire score, and again Sondheim declined. Danny Elfman went on to handle that chore in this primary-color action-comedy that brings Chester Gould’s comic strip detective to life. Sondheim contributed five 1930s-inspired songs: “Back in Business”, “What Can You Lose”, “More”, “Live Alone and Like It”, and the torchy “Sooner or Later” which won Sondheim his first and only Oscar.

Directed by Mike Nichols and adapted from the 1973 French play La Cage of Folles which had already been turned into a film in 1978 and a Broadway musical (by outspoken Sondheim critic Jerry Herman) in 1983. My dislike for this fiercely unfunny film knows no bounds, so I’m going to be as terse as possible here. It would take the likes of Hercule Poirot to find the three songs Sondheim contributed to this movie. An original song, “It Takes All Kinds” went unused. Then there's a song titled “Little Dream" that plays for about six seconds. The delectable duet “Love is in the Air” (a song originally written for “Forum”) gets about 45 seconds of screen time. The nip/tuck treatment of Sondheim's music is especially irksome because so much of The Birdcage takes place in a nightclub.

Directed by Tim Burton and adapted from the 1979 Broadway production that won 8 Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Score. This blood-soaked Grand Guignol opera is my #1 favorite of all Sondheim’s works, and I’ve listened to it countless times. That I consider it to be his masterpiece might suggest I would find fault with the faithful but severely truncated Tim Burton adaptation. But–weakish lead vocals and humorlessness aside–I think this is a rather splendid adaptation. Granted, I might be cutting this film some slack because a full version of the national touring company with Angela Lansbury & George Hearn had already been committed to video in 1982, so it's not like Burton's movie needs to be the definitive screen version. Also, Burton's version earns points for not being guilty of the musical adaptation sin of having a superfluous new song awkwardly shoehorned into the original score in hopes of garnering an Oscar nomination.

Directed by Rob Marshall and adapted from the three-time 1987 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Remarkably, this film version of Sondheim’s grim adult take on Grimm’s fairy tales marks my first time ever seeing Into The Woods (1984’s Sunday in the Park with George had put me off Sondheim for a bit), so I’m willing to accept the tiresomely patronizing assurances from my theater-geek friends that until I watch the complete production performed by the original Broadway cast for cable TV in 1991, I STILL haven’t seen Into the Woods. Be that as it may, in the spirit of discovery I must say I had the best time watching Marshall's film. Wonderful performances throughout, and that absolutely superb and complex score. Subsequent revisits…with fast-forward remote at the ready… have been less ecstatic. The film was nominated for 3 Oscars.

CAMP - 2003
Todd Graff wrote and directed this musical comedy-drama set in a performing arts camp for teenagers. Sondheim donated three of his songs to this low-budget labor of love: “I’m Still Here” and “Losing My Mind” from Follies, and “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. (I'm honestly not sure if teens singing these decidedly mature songs was part of the joke ["I'm Still Here"...from what, detention?] I sincerely hope so.) Sondheim also donated his time and gravitas by appearing as himself in a brief cameo. In a sort of Waiting for Guffman moment, the patron saint of musical theater teens arrives at the camp in a limousine with the license plate 4UM, his entrance given an appropriately rockstar welcome.

Difficult for me to call Stephen Spielberg's adaptation of Sondheim's West Side Story a remake because it feels so fresh. It's more like when great Shakespearean works are revisited...each becomes its own unique interpretation. Given my strong affection for the 1961 film, I wasn't truly expecting to fall in love with this version the way that I ultimately did. It kind of swept me off my feet. Hearing new arrangements of long-familiar songs and seeing an old story told through a younger, more aware, cringe-free prism was a thrilling experience that had me in tears throughout. 

TICK, TICK...BOOM! - 2021
I honestly tried, but I found it impossible to make it through even the first 20 minutes of 2021's Tick, Tick...Boom!, so I missed out on experiencing Sondheim's audio-only "cameo" (as himself) in dramatic context (I watched a clip of the scene on YouTube). In a mini-monologue written by Sondheim himself, his voice is heard on an answering machine giving up-and-coming composer Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield) a timely pep talk. The film, set in 1999 gives us Stephen  Sondheim in the flesh, portrayed by actor Bradley Whitford of Get Out (2017). My personal feelings about the movie aside, I can't imagine a greater testament to Stephen Sondheim's enduring brilliance than his being depicted in this film as an icon of musical theater, a patron saint and inspiration to young artists. 

"Sorry, Blanc. You're thrown out of the airlock. It's a no-brainer."  - Those are the only lines spoken by Stephen Sondheim in this, his last screen appearance. Playing himself, he appears in a COVID lockdown Zoom gathering with Broadway legend Angela Lansbury (also her final screen appearance), NBA All-Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and actress Natasha Lyonne. They are all playing the online video sleuthing game "Among Us" with world-famous fictional detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) in this, his second screen mystery (following the character's debut in Knives Out - 2019). Sondheim's appearance as gamer "Steve S." is but a cameo, but in context, it's an ideal screen sendoff for one of popular culture's most well-known game-players. A screen farewell made all the more satisfying because Benoit Blanc's fondness for Sondheim music was wittily referenced in Knives Out, and because Rian Johnson's murder mystery Glass Onion consistently pays loving homage to Sondheim & Perkin's twisty & bitchy 1973 whodunit The Last of Sheila.

Stephen Sondheim's legacy for me is indelible and rich. For some reason, he seems to have been the perfect composer to introduce me to musical theater at an impressionable age. He set a very high standard. That his reputation continues to grow and his work is recognized and lauded by an entirely new generation makes me glad that at least a few of his shows have been preserved on film. 
My Favorite Stephen Sondheim Musical Scores

My Top Five Favorite Sondheim Songs:
"Every Day a Little Death"
"Not While I'm Around" 
"Losing My Mind"
"There's Always a Woman"
"Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?"

Readers: No one should have to pick a "favorite" from Sondheim's sizeable catalog of impossibly beautiful (and riotously funny) songs, but if you care to share a particular Sondheim composition you enjoy or that means something to you, I'd be interested to know.  

Liza Minnelli sings Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" - from her Results album -1989
I know a music video doesn’t officially fit the “Sondheim in the Movies” theme of this tribute, but this is included here because Oscar-winning, Miss Show-Biz herself, Liza Minnelli, delivers more deliriously extravagant drama, anguish, camp, and genuine pathos in 4 ½ minutes than you’ll find in a Douglas Sirk/David Lynch film festival. 
For those desperate to make a movie connection; imagine this video as a 20-years-later short film sequel to Minnelli's The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) with an adult Pookie Adams still getting herself into obsessive, one-way relationships.
Pet Shop Boys (Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe) produced this infectious synthpop dance version of Sondheim’s torch ballad from Follies. On the strength of Minnelli’s committed, full-throttle performance, I also find this majestically melodramatic music video…which even features a nod to the Emcee in Cabaret…to be delicately moving. Directed by Briant Grant.

In the comic whodunit Knives Out (2019) Daniel Craig
plays a gay master detective with a fondness for Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim made his acting debut in the Oscar Levant-esque role of songwriter Maxie Schwartz in the 1974 TV adaptation of George F. Kaufman's 1929 comedy June Moon. The entire telecast is available for viewing on YouTube or as part of the Great Performances DVD collection.

Crazy business this, this life we live in
Can't complain about the time we're given
With so little to be sure of in this world,
We had a moment
A marvelous moment

-"With So Little To Be Sure Of" - from Anyone Can Whistle - 1964 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2022