Reviewed by: The Dude

The life of Cole Porter has been been studied by enthusiasts of musical theatre for decades, but it is with Irwin Winkler's new film that it has finally been made available to a more mainstream, contemporary audience. First off, a word of warning: if you don't like musicals, this might not be your thing. Although it is based upon Porter's life, it is necessarily filled with a large number of his songs and characters do tend to break out into them quite regularly.

It begins with an ageing Porter (Kevin Kline), sitting alone in his New York apartment, when a "mysterious stranger" named Gabe (Jonathan Pryce) transports him to an old theatre where he must sit and watch his life played out on stage. Slowly all of his friends walk the boards, until finally we are presented with the love of his life, Linda Lee (a stunning Ashley Judd).

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The first location the audience is taken to is 1920s Paris at the beginning of Porter and Lee's relationship. They meet at a party and everyone breaks into song. After a beautifully staged and performed courtship that takes advantage of all of the aesthetic possibilities of the jazz age, they decide to get married, even though Linda knows he has affairs with men and will continue to do so.

Throughout the rest of the film, Gabe acts as the voice of reason, as he and Porter watch the actors on stage play out his life. The result (don't want to give too much away!) is an intricately woven fabric of musical highs and lows (to which his own music provides a constant soundtrack) and the struggle between his love and admiration for Linda and the men and parties that distract him.

Kline's performance is strong and convincing, Judd's beauty and dignity is touching and impressive. There were some tears during particularly emotional moments (I admit it) and it is the elegant way in which Judd conveys herself that is to blame. Pryce's character Gabe comes across as flat and patronising. The way in which he supernaturally attempts to direct the story is an obvious and contrived attempt at incorporating the "life is a stage" metaphor in a painful and annoying way - Porter wrote musicals and now his life is on stage, like a musical! Get it?

Winkler might have saved the audience some time and annoyance if this unnecessary storyline was dropped completely, or at least everything up until the closing number of Blow, Gabriel, Blow. The use of this song is supposed to be symbolic and while the transparency of its intention made me want to smack someone, it is a really good performance nonetheless: a powerful number to send the show home!

As for the pop star performances, there are some really nice surprises. Elvis Costello is grand and Lemar, on a gondola in Venice, delivers a really clever interpretation of one of Porter's loveliest songs. After a while, though, the rush to fit in as much of the music-on-stage as possible can get a bit tiring. Fans have a wide selection to choose from, even though they might feel weary after 30 songs in two hours.

In short, a de-lovely film and a de-lovely story, but get comfortable because it might be a long show.

Reviewed on: 18 Sep 2004
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Musical based on the life of Cole Porter.
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David Haviland ***1/2


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