Cinema Signal: by Jules Brenner>
Cinema Signal:

Very Best of
Cole Porter

. "De-Lovely"

In a darkened room an elderly man sits at a piano. He's barely outlined by light from a window, his face obscured in shadow. Then, a light fades up, spotlighting him, followed by brightness all around. Thus starts "De-Lovely" and its style of self-aware artificiality. The pianist is an after-life representation of composer Cole Porter (Kevin Kline), aged with make-up.

Out of a still shadowed corner of the room steps Gabe (Jonathan Pryce), emerging like the ethereal character he is (think angel, horn-blower Gabriel and you'll make the connection). As theatrical entrepreneur and spirit guide, Pryce speaks with a sense of breathless self-importance as he lays out the acts of his movie-musical production, a look-back on the highlights of Porter's life. The show includes moments Porter would rather edit out but, though he may be the author of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," it doesn't afford him final cut on this collaboration.

Like a symphony that's incomplete because all the notes aren't available, this reminiscence fails to illuminate a three-dimensional portrait of the subject. The show that Gabe puts on for the dead man (and for us) is loaded with talent and period accuracy. But, the portrayal of the subject's swank, privileged life, festive and elegant to behold, tends to be off-putting. The world which Porter commands with assured, inevitable success, remains distant and alien. Rather than relate to it, I felt I was there to simply revel in the entertainment. Which I did -- the Porter touch prevails.

As for the character Kevin Kline creates, I don't know what I was more bothered by, his smirk or his strut. He wore the stylish costumes impeccably well, however.

Ashley Judd provided the glamour necessary to be convincing as Linda, the female love of Porter's life, and a wife who was ready to support and enable his physical preference for men to an extent difficult to comprehend apart from the fact that she was a divorc‚e who was older than Porter and enjoyed the good life. But the level of devotion that sustains the heroic toleration suggested here (if it was that) is worn down by the marriage's philandering reality, only the surface of which is allowed to enter the scenario. She is as much window dressing for the picture as she might have been for the real man's social standing. A psychological study of this deprived woman's basis for such sacrifice may be the better drama.

The appearances of hip modern divas stepping away from their signature singing styles to take on the Porter magic was, for me, a highlight. Alanis Morissette is off the charts on "Let's Do It, Let's Fall In Love" and Sheryl Crow is the cat's meow on "Begin the Beguine," both having their way with the material and trying their best but perhaps a bit too freeform for Porter devotees. Not being an ingrained one, I thought the effort of these modern divas worthy of some appreciation (Ok, not a lot). Diana Krall, Elvis Costello and Natalie Cole lend their more in-touch luster, and I wound up wishing the young, musical-oriented Linda Ronstadt was around. Costuming and set design are undeniable hits.

It must have seemed a great privilege for director Irwin Winkler (who last worked with Kevin Kline on Life is a House, 2001), and screenwriter Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) to bring the work of this legend to the screen. Their aim seems to be a grand retrospective of his ingenious touch with a pop song and an attempt to humanize his homosexual life while scandalizing it. But success for a film biography depends on more than a handsome production with a nostalgic playlist. The need for an emotional connection to the main character won't be satisfied by gold plating a man whose essential qualities, besides a talent that has enriched our musical heritage, is that he's ultra sophisticated, cool to an adoring wife, and absorbed in his gay exploits.

Having said all that, if you're seriously into musicals, you won't want to miss it.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Ashley Judd and Kevin Kline
The Porters on opening night

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