Doodad Kind of Town

Of Lent, Choir Rehearsals, and Disappointing Movies
March 6, 2008, 10:51 pm
Filed under: Musicals

Lent is the season of sacrifice, deprivation, and eating fish on Fridays.

And, if you are a member of a church choir, it’s also the time of year when you spend an inordinate amount of time in rehearsal. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday – each requires the performance of special music for the worship service, preceded by many hours of practice time.

And it’s not just the church choir. Friday night rehearsals have also begun for the community choir with whom I’m making an overseas concert trip this summer.

Let’s just say I’m spending more time in the alto section than in the multiplex.

When I have some down time, I’m likely to be relaxing with a flick on the small screen. But that hasn’t been a terribly satisfying pastime as of late. I’ve been re-watching movies I thought I loved, and finding they just don’t do it for me anymore.

Two nights ago, I decided to unwind by watching “Evita” on one of the specialty Encore movie channels. It had been several years since I’d last watched Madonna’s Eva Peron (to borrow a phrase from the original stage production’s advertising) “quietly seduce a nation.” In my recollection “Evita” was entertaining and visually compelling, and Madonna was pretty damn good in the title role. This time around, I found the movie still visually exciting, but I had a whole different opinion of Ms. Ciccone. I blame my dampened enthusiasm on all those choir rehearsals.

Let me explain:

I do not get paid to sing. I perform in these various choirs for free just ’cause I enjoy doing it. I’m not expected to be professional, BUT I am expected not to take a breath in the middle of a phrase. When the choir director says “Don’t take a breath between measures 45 and 46,” I don’t breathe there. As a general rule, you are not supposed to take a breath in a place where, if you were speaking the lyrics rather than singing them, you wouldn’t naturally pause. That’s one thing I’ve learned in over 30 years of choral singing.

Madonna, on the other hand, probably made a gazillion dollars to sing the role of Eva Peron. But she takes a breath after about every three words of every song. Why isn’t she held to higher standards than a lowly church choir alto?

For example, in the song “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” Eva sings this lyric: “Call in three months time, and I’ll be fine, I know.”

If you were saying those words to a friend, you would not say them like this:
“Call in three months time (pause) and I’ll be fine (pause) I know.”

But Madonna sings them like that. Which is perplexing to me. With all the Pilates and jogging this bitch does, shouldn’t she have built a pretty capacious set of lungs? Why can’t she get enough air to get through a simple phrase like that?

All through “Evita,” the onscreen Madonna physically projects all the confidence and ambition appropriate to Eva Peron, but her singing voice doesn’t match her physical presence. You can almost feel how nervous she is when she has to get up to a high note. She generally sings like she’s afraid of the music, but determined to give it her all. Something organic to the character goes missing. (Patti LuPone, who played the role on Broadway, isn’t my favorite singer either, to be frank. But Ms. LuPone’s voice is properly trained and powerful, and she can attack a high note fearlessly – appropriate when you’re playing a woman who was fearless and ruthless in her bid for power.)

If you want to see how it should be done, pay attention to Jonathan Pryce, who plays her husband, Juan Peron. He is flawless. Both a far better actor and a far more comfortable singer than Madonna, he interprets his lyrics so believably, that you almost forget he’s singing. His style feels conversational, doesn’t draw attention to itself. You’re watching a character, a person – not a “performance.”

I had even higher hopes for “All About Eve,” which popped up on TCM over the past weekend. While I hadn’t seen it in many years, I remembered it fondly for its witty script and fantastic performances. (And here I’m going to assume you are familiar with this classic, so don’t expect a rehash of the plot.)

I’ll probably be crucified by classic film lovers for saying so, but – 58 years after its initial release – I don’t think “All About Eve” is aging so well.

For want of a better word, I found it flabby. Almost every scene lasted a good minute longer than it needed to; every point made in the dialogue was hammered home just one time too many (Margo is insecure about getting older! Eve is just trying to be helpful! A woman needs a man in her life to be fulfilled! I felt more bludgeoned by these revelations than entertained by them.)

And Anne Baxter’s performance seemed so overwrought and phony to me. Granted she’s playing a phony, and when her ruse is revealed late in the film, she starts being a bit more believable. But up till that point, I kept thinking “Why isn’t anyone catching on to her? These are smart people, and she’s such an obvious schemer!”

Ironically, one of the wittiest performances is also one of the most restrained. George Sanders, who plays the venomous critic, Addison DeWitt, is all relaxed elegance and well-chosen but memorable quips. He isn’t nearly as garrulous or overbearing as most of the other characters, but even in repose, he’s fascinating. And when he speaks, you listen. Sanders’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role still feels richly deserved.

So, perhaps the coming weekend will bring better cinematic experiences. Personally, I’m looking forward to “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” with wonderful Frances McDormand. I’m also hoping to make it to at least one of the following: “In Bruges,” “The Counterfeiters” or “The Band’s Visit.”

What are YOU seeing this weekend?


6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This is my favorite kind of post: when someone brings their personal experience to the analysis of a movie. It’s such a cool opportunity to see something through someone else’s lens. Thanks, Pat!P.S. I miss choir! Haven’t done it since high school.

Comment by Nayana Anthony

Thank you, Nayana.Like I say, my blog takes place “at the intersection of movies and my life.” I find whatever’s going on with me in my day-to-day life tends to affect my movie-watching experience.

Comment by Pat

Thanks for the note, Pat! I have the same prejudices towards computers that you have towards singing – since when did every single screen have to have its own ridiculous looking GUI anyway? Looking forward to checking in on your site now and then.

Comment by Evan Derrick

Pat – The weekend has come and gone. Being sick, I spent it inside. Watched “The Mysterious Lady” with Garbo and a 1933 Cagney film “Lady Killer”. The EU Film Festival has started, so I’m supposed to cover that for my blog. It’s going to be a busy time.I liked your insights about Madonna’s lack of singing technique. A nonmusic person like me doesn’t really get that stuff. But I also just rewatched “Evita,” and wasn’t quite as enthralled as the first time.”All About Eve” – yes, I know it’s flaws, and I don’t care. It’s just such a bitchy masterpiece to me. I actually thought Baxter seemed more phony when she became famous. She acted just like Margo. The girl had no real personality at all!

Comment by Marilyn

Evan – thanks for stopping by!Marilyn – Sorry to hear you’ve been sick, hopefully you are better now. Looking forward to your film festival posts.I’ve always loved “All About Eve,” so I’m not sure why it bothered me so much this time. I must be seeing it through different eyes, but I haven’t figure out why.

Comment by Pat

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.Ruth

Comment by cedric

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