Pennies From Heaven (1981)
Steve Martin is known 85% of the time as a wacky comedian like The Jerk, Three Amigos, Bowfinger and Georg Festrunk of “Those two wild and crazy guys” SNL sketches. 13% is for those light-hearted family-features he’s known for like Father of the Bride, Parenthood and Cheaper By the Dozen. The remainder 2% is for his dramatic roles. Sometimes his comedies have drama in them like L.A. Story or Novocaine but rarely do you see him as a “serious” actor. It’s just not completely his style or what’s he’s known for. However, the highly talented man can act dammit! I recently watched this odd musical a few weeks ago and was blown away by how strange and wonderful it is.
I’ve heard of it since my college days but I always assumed it was a musical comedy in the vein of Kiss Me Kate or Bye Bye Birdie. I think it was the tap-dancing or it could’ve just been THE FACT THAT STEVE MARTIN was in it! This was his second starring role after The Jerk and the man is already starring in a drama. That was totally unexpected. Sure most comedians or clowns try their hand in dramatic roles but even Bill Murray and Jim Carrey waited a few years until they tried. Martin was very famous stand-up comedian and I’m shocked he was chosen to play this character. Without going into too much of the plot of the film his character is a horn-dog! He’s married to a very frigid wife and doesn’t get too much nookie; especially the kinky kind he wants (for some reason, he requests his wife put red lipstick on her areolas). So he embarks on an affair with a shy yet beautiful schoolteacher played by Bernadette Peters. He knocks up Peters after a one night stand and doesn’t see her again until after her life unravels and she ultimately becomes a hooker to pay the bills. Roxanne this ain’t. I’ve never seen Martin in such a sleazy and immoral role before and it was a bit jarring.
The film takes place in the Chicago area during the Great Depression and all the music is set during that time period. There was no original music in this film; just popular tunes from the 1930s and even in the early 80s these songs were more or less forgotten gems. So it was extra fun hearing these ditties over 75 years later! I’m surprised I never really heard of this movie especially after Moulin Rouge who sort of followed the same formula with using popular music to tell the musical story. However, Moulin Rouge had the actors actually sing the songs of Madonna and Elton John. In Pennies From Heaven, every song is just lip-synced by Martin, Peters and the rest of cast. There’s a ton of dancing done by the actors but not singing. Which I found a little strange. On the one hand it highlighted the songs of the era more by having the original recording but on the other hand you’re having every actor lip-sync while dancing and that just looks comical and not as profound as it probably should be considering the serious tone of the film.
But since I was into the movie and the music, it didn’t diminish my level of attention or entertainment. In fact, I had some of these antiquated songs stuck in my head for a few days I was forced to buy the soundtrack and have been constantly playing a Cole Porter station on Pandora! These are REALLY fun songs and I wouldn’t be far from crazy as to say that these songs are better than most modern pop music that’s being produced today. I dare you to compare Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” (I actually like that song by the way) to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.” Both have the same sexual theme but Porter’s is actually more sinister and lyrically fun to sing in my opinion. Both singers are begging for sex but Porter is way more clever at asking. I kinda wish those old numbers from the early 20th century (damn, I can’t believe the 20th century is a that much of a footnote now) would be covered by today’s acts because today’s acts need better lyric writing.
Anyway, before I show you some of the film’s musical highlights, I just want to let you know how good this film is; not just because of the music but because of its production value, its acting and its dark tone. It was not the typical Hollywood movie. Martin and Peters were not completely sympathetic characters—he was a salacious and rude man, who was also a liar and a cheat. Peters was transformed from innocent schoolteacher to promiscuous street walker. I think that may have troubled most audiences and critics back in 1981 because it was hard to root for these characters to succeed in the end. And suffice to say they don’t, which was another shock to me that it didn’t have its typical Hollywood ending either. But because it was so unconventional, I appreciated it way more than most silly dramas made today that are too afraid to be dark. And the “happy” jazzy and big band music of the 30s totally contradicts the tone of the film giving it an even more darker tone to boot. If you come across this movie don’t eschew it just because it’s weird. I’m glad I gave it a shot. Where else can you find Christopher Walken play a tap dancing pimp anyway?
Sorry for the lousy quality of the last one.
PS: I forgot to mention that this movie was based on a BBC miniseries with Bob Hoskins. I knew that before I watched the movie but I didn’t know too much other than that. While I was looking for clips from the movie I watched some of the BBC versions as well. Turns out that the miniseries also did the lip-syncing over the songs so I suppose the movie just wanted to emulate the original.