By and large, biographies tend towards the weighty, filled as they are with the minutiae of their subject’s life. Any attempt to encapsulate these lives within another art form necessitates some kind of shorthand; signifiers of events, personal traits or relationships. Occasionally, such works adopt the structure of a book; John Cale and Lou Reed’s Songs for Drella, for instance, is as impressive and moving as any written account of the life of Andy Warhol. Frequently, they focus in on a single character feature, something that drew them to the subject in the first place: a facial tick, mannerism or unidentifiable quality.
Bio-pics are posited somewhere between biography and portrait, having neither the depth of the former nor the enigma of a photograph or painting. As a result, they run the gamut from the respectable to the inspired. De-Lovely, Irwin Winkler’s musical fable of the life of Cole Porter, is neither. Managing to be both humdrum and ludicrously overblown, it does, surprisingly, retain some sense of dignity in its patchy account of one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century.
Its major failing is in presenting the songs not as a product of their time, but as numbers played out by a broad spectrum of musical celebrities. Cole Porter’s songs are his legacy, the key reason for celebrating his life, in any medium. Certainly, the history of his various relationships with both sexes makes for an interesting story, but without the music, it would become a tired and indulgent tale. There is something bizarre therefore, in the way the songs are massacred by a litany of second-rate singers*. Robbie Williams and Alanis Morrisette tear through ‘Its De-Lovely’ and ‘Lets Do It, Lets Fall In Love’, whilst still playing the role of cheeky chappie and screaming banshee. However, these misdemeanours pale next to the vocal crimes inflicted by Sheryl Crowe, who bludgeons ‘Begin the Beguine’. It is some consolation that this musical nadir is not followed by guest spots from Celine Dion or Mariah Carey.
More impressive are a fleeting appearance by Mick Hucknall and two fine performances by Diane Krall and Elvis Costello, the latter making for an impressively exuberant bandleader. However, it is left to West End star John Barrowman to show how Cole Porter’s songs should really be performed. His ‘Night and Day’ remains the only sublime moment in the film, capturing the essence of Porter’s best work.
Songs aside, De-Lovely is a shambles. The narrative, by occasional Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks (Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York), is woefully inept. A cross between a bad Andy Hardy film and Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, it features a more deserving Jonathan Pryce, playing the Gabriel of one of Porter’s best showstoppers, as he takes the songwriter back through the major events of his life. One sequence, Porter’s first visit to Louis B. Mayer’s Hollywood lot, beggars belief. Fluorescently over-lit, the ensuing comedy routine is badly choreographed and lacks both humour and originality.
The question of Porter’s sexuality is also poorly handled, desperate as it is not to offend anyone who may be unaware of his prodigious carnal appetite. Winkler adopts the ‘blink-and-then-you-miss-it’ approach to homosexuality (or to paraphrase a Marilyn Monroe song, ‘A kiss between men may be quite continental, but heteros are a box office’s best friend’).
And yet, undeserving as the film is, it is punctuated with genuine emotion, thanks to Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd. Cole and Linda’s partnership, according to the film, was the prop in Porter’s life, from which he drew strength and inspiration. Judd, in particular, finds a welcome depth amongst the script’s numerous clichés. While Kline’s voice may do little justice to the songs, he plays Porter with a finesse that gives some indication of why people were drawn to him.
Although Porter’s music may, at times, seem little more than a trifle – the recreation of playful tunes from a bygone era – there is subtlety and complexity beyond the entertainment, a hint of the personal conflicts Cole faced in his otherwise privileged lifestyle; that beyond this trite bio-pic, there really was enchantment, sophistication and grace.
* In fact, it is more cynical than bizarre. The inclusion of contemporary pop, soul, rock and jazz singers will undoubtedly boost the sales of the soundtrack album, ignoring a century’s worth of recordings by singers who are all too aware that the importance is emoting, not winning, while they’re singing.