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In Chicago during the 1930s depression, sheet music salesman Arthur Parker is trying to sell his products, but it's not easy to convince unwilling music store owners to buy them. Although he's already married to the somewhat drab Joan, when he meets school teacher Eileen in a music store, he falls in love with her. Written by
Spactacular; possibly the most underrated film of the last 20 years
An Americanized adaptation of the six-part 1978 British miniseries, underrated director Herbert Ross' brilliant PENNIES FROM HEAVEN was a huge commercial flop in US when originally released. Audiences of 1981 did not seem to understand the concept of a depression-era musical, where the actors lip-synch to original recording from the in 1930s in elaborate fantasies that are far removed from the actual world in which they inhabit. Though extremely unconventional, this device is absolutely heart-wrenching as the dreariness of the real world breaks away to the brightly-colored, perpetually optimistic fantasy land that only lives in the lyrics of popular songs. It is the eternal agony of the dreamer that is expressed; the cold reality that leaves us destined to reach for the sky, but doomed to walk the earth.
This leaves the film's cast with a difficult task, as they must not only contend with their dramatic art, but also be well versed in a variety of demanding dances and highly disciplined choreography. Comedian Steve Martin is far from the first choice to portray the downtrodden protagonist in any film, but the actor acquits himself expertly in both the film's demanding dance and drama. Mousy Jessica Harper delves into her eternally repressed character so deeply that one is never certain where one stops and the other begins; a triumph of form for any thespian. Renowned dancer Vernel Bagneris is mesmerizing as the film's most ambiguous character, and his density-defying dance to Arthur Tracy's heartbreaking rendition of the title song is one of my favorite moments in any film.
Even more impressive is tough guy actor Christopher Walken's then-unexpected prowess on the dance floor, as he delivers a riotously funny and surprisingly sexy striptease to Irving Aaronson's "Let's Misbehave." In this sequence, Walken pulls off the difficult hat trick of satisfying both seasoned viewers and film neophytes, while still managing to leave both groups wanting more. Best of all, however, is the lovely Bernadette Peters in a superb, Golden Globe award-winning performance. Never before has Peters' slightly tarnished Kewpie-doll personae been better utilized, and the actress' transformation from repressed schoolmarm to hardened prostitute feels both stunningly and horrifyingly real.
Herbert Ross and his creative team manage to bind all of the pieces together into one seamless collage of lost hope, forced optimism, and never-ending desperation. Gordon Willis' cinematography is never less than completely awe-inspiring, and the combined efforts of top-drawer art and set direction and Bob Mackie's seemingly authentic period costumes helps cement the look and feel of desolate decade that the film represents. Over all films in every genre, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN would be a likely contender to receive my vote for the single most underrated film masterpiece of the last twenty years. It exudes all of the contradictory joy and heartbreak that the movies offer, and serves it all up in one stunning presentation.
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