Boogie Woogie

Boogie Woogie


Reviewed by: Chris

With so many stars and connections eminently qualified to speak about the area it explores, I was well-primed to enjoy Boogie Woogie to the utmost.

It’s based on a highly successful novel by author Danny Moynihan, who has also written the screenplay. This is sexy black comedy and is set amid the hustle-bustle of fine art acquisition, dealers and galleries with concomitant affairs, in contemporary London. Characters slyly draw on real people. Critics and art experts have consequently been falling over themselves to show their knowledge of closely-linked actual persons and events. Whatever the disclaimer says. Boogie Woogie has gone to great lengths for authenticity. Real masterpieces are cleverly interwoven with fictions. Even the title work is so closely allied to the real thing that it makes you wonder. (Boogie Woogie is the name of a series of prized paintings by Mondrian, and the central artwork in the film is an accurately fictionalised piece, only destroyed afterwards at the request of Mondrain’s Estate).

Copy picture

Dealer and gallery owner Art Spindle (Danny Huston) wants ‘Boogie-Woogie’, a painting he covets above all else. Its current owner, Alfred Rhinegold (Christopher Lee), is desperately ill. Rhinegold’s wife (Joanna Lumley) wants to up the ante by encouraging rival bidders. Especially Bob Maclestone, a collector incisively played by Stellan Skarsgård. The plot is further complicated by everyone jumping into bed with the wrong people for the wrong reasons. The BBFC, after a spoiler alert, goes into not inconsiderable detail over the somewhat singular sexual content. So I won’t. Fans of funky erotic subject matter have no fear: you shall find out for yourselves.

Boogie Woogie brims over with great actors. Nobody needs to be ashamed of performances here, with or without clothes. And so if the film's reach is slightly greater than its grasp, I nevertheless feel a bit uncomfortable explaining why it doesn’t put woogie back into my boogie.

Comedy, like abstract art, is to an extent subjective. But Boogie Woogie tilts at both windmills without embracing either. ‘Ripping the lid off the art world’ is a great and noble concept. But the result here, for one reason or another, is uneven, woefully ill-judged, and a squandering of talent that borders on sacrilege. Gags aren’t very funny, it doesn’t arouse our passion for art, and most of the ‘in’ references are pointlessly unintelligible to anyone not already familiar with finer details of the respective power-brokers’ sex lives.

Danny Moynihan has relocated the story of his novel from New York to London: this is where some of the problems arise. Lines sound inauthentic, unconvincing, as if desperately trying to persuade us that this is Real Cockney Art-World. Subtler tones of any backstory also seem damaged. Mondrian’s last painting, for instance, ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie,’ represents the restless motion of Manhattan. Its grid-like patterns suggest New York’s ordered chaos. It has a prominent yellow which is the yellow of New York taxicabs. And a metaphor to jazz in the title echoes the movement and rhythm that are seen as analogous to Mondrian’s painted marks. There are even deeper studies about the art referred to, which relate to the nature of perception, but the film seems to have lost these at the word go. Any eponymous substance has long been abandoned before such thoughts could kick in.

We are, however, treated to a constant (at times intrusive) jazz soundtrack. And much arty chat. All delivered at a speed guaranteed not to detract from the sight of Gemma Atkinson (or Gillian Anderson) treating us to glimpses of their more tangible assets. As both Moynihan and director Duncan Ward have been intimately involved with art, not to mention Damien Hirst being present as consultant, one might be forgiven for wanting a little more meat on this bone.

Joanna Lumley reprises some of the flavour from her hit TV series Absolutely Fabulous. The familiar clash of taste and gobbiness is in full flow. But whereas Ab Fab scored with visual gags and highly developed comic characters, Boogie Woogie’s attempt to lampoon style-over-substance seems injudicious and hollow. Whereas Mondrian’s actual work bristles with luminous colour, the film tries too hard to be bright and ends up lacklustre. In a word, inadequate to the task. Leading parts are not charismatic enough to command or sustain appeal for the full hour and a half, even with such great actors. Timing of jokes seems rehearsed rather than spontaneous. The overall effect is ironically artificial.

One of the best things about Boogie Woogie is that it might inspire you, as it inspired me, to read the original novel. The book is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is undoubtedly original, well-written, quite often shocking, and does everything the movie set out to do and doesn’t.

Strangely, for a film I have to admit I didn’t like very much, I am strongly drawn to watching it again. I want to imagine it as it could have been. Should have been. A film that makes us care about art. Laugh about the shenanigans. Feel shocked or excited by sex and drugs and jazz. And I desperately, desperately, want to see a note in the end-credits that reassures me “No actors were harmed in the making of this train wreck.”

Boogie Woogie is an oddity. Not quite bad enough to be good, and not good enough to wholeheartedly recommendable. But, like a painting where the oils contained the wrong amount of linseed, the effort that has gone into its ill-fated brushstrokes is nevertheless sadly commendable.

Reviewed on: 16 Apr 2010
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