Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Rhapsody in Blue


Ask me who the best composers of the 20th Century were, and I’d say this: Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bernstein, Copland, and Gershwin. Ask me who the best one was, and I’m sorry Maurice, Igor, Sergei, Lennie, and Aaron, but it’s George all the way.

This movie was a lot better than I thought it would be. Biopics are usually a mess, and wildly inaccurate. This one has its flaws, such as a totally manufactured love triangle and several other faked conflicts and incorrect coincidences aimed at drumming up pathos. But a biopic of a musician can be enjoyable for the music alone, as in the recent movies Ray and Walk the Line.
This story about George Gershwin has some of the best music sequences I’ve ever seen. GG is played very well by Robert Alda (birth name: Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo), father of Alan. Several people appear as themselves, including Al Jolson, Paul Whiteman (the King of Jazz), and Oscar Levant, who does all the actual piano playing on the soundtrack. Alda is one of the best I’ve ever seen at faking virtuosity at the keyboard; his hands are always in the right places, doing the right things. You could really believe he’s doing that incredibly complicated work in Rhapsody in Blue, which is presented in its entirety (more or less; no one knows exactly what version was performed, and there have been several) in a recreation of its premier with an orchestra conducted by Paul Whiteman at the Aeolian Hall in New York. Even better is a long montage illustrating An American in Paris. It is filmed as if from Gershwin’s POV as he moves around Paris, from the streets to the clubs to the Folies Bergere, with the music in the background. It is a masterpiece of cinema. Oscar Levant is featured twice, once performing the Concerto in F (as he would do again six years later in the film An American in Paris), and at the very end doing the Ferde Grofé orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue.

Two other people who play themselves are Hazel Scott and Anne Brown. Scott does a fantastic medley of some of Gershwin’s best popular songs, singing and accompanying herself on the piano, at which she is a virtuoso. She trained at Julliard, and was the first black woman to have her own TV show, in 1950. Then those dumb, un-American, treasonous fuckheads at HUAC accused her of communist sympathies, mainly because she opposed segregation and McCarthyism, and the show was cancelled.

Anne Brown … well, she was another incredible black talent that America drove away with our persistent racism. Like Josephine Baker, she got fed up with the bullshit and left, for Norway, of all places. She was the original Bess. In fact, she was instrumental in the creation of Gershwin’s opera, trying out new songs as he wrote them. He was so impressed that he named the opera Porgy and Bess, instead of just Porgy, which was the name of the book. He expanded the character just for her. And my only real objection to the movie is that we don’t get enough Porgy and Bess, just an excerpt from “Summertime.”