Two Music Films
I love movies about music, and this past week I saw two of them—both worthwhile—that could hardly have been more different.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, made in 1964, is advertised as a film with music, but in truth it is music. Every word is sung, from the mechanic’s opening line (“The engine still knocks when it’s cold, but that’s normal.”) to the lover’s plea (“I can never live without you. Don’t go, it will kill me.”). Like the colorful umbrellas that dot the rainy streets, music arches over and covers the story.
The jazz score for this quintessentially French film was written by Michel Legrand, who by his early twenties was playing piano with Miles Davis and Stan Getz. The story and music are impossibly romantic, tracing the love affair of Guy and Geneviève from its early blaze to its final flicker. By the end, I was full to the brim, of music and rain and romance.
The 2023 documentary What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? takes us back to 1970, just a few years after Umbrellas, when BS&T, a phenomenally successful rock band, went on a State Department tour behind the Iron Curtain. The band combined rock with jazz in a way that had never been done before, and it featured rough, powerful vocals by David Clayton-Thomas, a Canadian.
BS&T, on top of the music world when they left, was sunk by partisan politics because of the tour, and the documentary chronicles their fall. The band, it turns out, was pressured into joining the tour to avoid deportation for Clayton-Thomas. However, their young anti-war fans saw it as a sellout.
In Eastern Europe, their supercharged music caused riots and triggered a brutal police response, which in turn upset the Nixon administration. So, on returning, the group was blindsided by attacks from both sides—government and fans. Clayton-Thomas left the band the following year, and BS&T was never the same.
Two music films—one a masterpiece and the other flawed but fascinating. I’d call that a good week at the movies.