The 5 stars are for the musical numbers, all of which are simply great. Show Boat, All the Things You Are, Look for the Silver Lining, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, They Didn’t Believe me – sung by June Allyson, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Angela Lansbury, Dina Shore, Tony Martin and Frank Sinatra. These are the most popular songs of their time sung by the greatest singers of that time in the way they were meant to be sung. The costumes are gorgeous, the choreography is terrific, the scenery is fine. It just doesn’t get better.
That is, for the music. As for the drama, a 0 rating is generous for this farrago of nonsense. The actor who plays Kern is so lackluster he looks like he couldn’t compose chopsticks. The English girl he meets in a picturesque cottage which he walks into when his bike gets a flat and sits down uninvited to play the piano (known in England as in America as criminal breaking and entering), and whom he marries, was in fact a barmaid he met in a pub. Worse, much worse, this English girl is played by a Canadian actress who makes no attempt whatever to mimic an English accent; surely they could have gotten an English actress, or an Aussie or a Kiwi or even an American or Canadian able to produce English diction, but they didn’t, and it makes the scenes in England just peculiar.
But all that is as nothing compared to the central drama of the film: Kern’s relationship with Jim Hessler and his daughter Sally. Nearly all the drama of the show involves them, much of it highly emotional; at one point, Jim’s death almost ends Kern’s composing, though he has yet to do Show Boat. The only trouble with this story is that neither Jim nor Sally actually existed; they are made up out of whole cloth to add drama to this biopic. This fiction was produced after Kern warned the producers that his life really was not all that interesting. No surprise there. Most composers’ lives are interesting only for the music they produced. The life of a short, dumpy fellow, poor as a church mouse who hung out with a few friends and visited pubs and brothels in Vienna a couple of centuries ago, would have no interest to anyone if Franz Schubert had not produced over 600 of the most beautiful songs ever composed. A man who spent his whole life playing the organ in his church, teaching the children Latin and then sitting down at his desk to work, would likewise hold no interest centuries after his death apart from the music that Bach bequeathed us. So it goes, for popular as well as classical music: composing is hard work, and no one with an interesting life would have time to do it.
But that does not justify making up a life story and presenting it as the life of a famous composer. This biopic, which spends so much time on the fictional Sally, fails to even mention the daughter that Jerry and Eva Kern had in real life (she married the band leader Arte Shaw). My suggestion is by all means to download this wonderful show, but to fast forward past all the non-musical parts; I sure wish somebody would have warned me to do that.