A sort-of musical set in Winnipeg during the Great Depression, where a beer baroness organizes a contest to find the saddest music in the world. Musicians from around the world descend on the city to try and win first place - a $25,000 prize.
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The world of Guy Maddin is like no other: a black&white, campy, extravaganza of irony, fantasy, pain, fun and silence. Maddin is a Canadian filmmaker – Winnipeg based -- who revels in a style reminiscent of the twenties and silent films. He uses an old camera and refuses to let anyone clean it. He tries for more grain and grit and fuzz in his images as opposed to less: the hyper realism and rainbow pallet of the current trend won’t do; working in the coldest city in an old warehouse that must be the coldest production facility in the world -- he spins dreams that bear a faint resemblance to movies.
Award winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the original screenplay – Maddin and George Toles refashioned it to suit their needs. Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini) is doing very well. It is the Great Depression and people are drowning their sorrows with her beer. But she sees an angle – she will offer 25 thousand dollars -- a huge sum -- for the “Saddest Music in the World”. The world will take notice and when Prohibition ends in the States her beer will be the first thing on thirsty people’s minds.
Contestants from around the globe flock to Winnipeg, representing their various countries. They square off, one on one, and play their sad sadder and saddest songs. Port-Huntley decides the winner who skids down a slide into a huge vat of beer as the crowd cheers.
The Lady is disabled – both her legs were sawed off in a tragic accident. On a winter night she was carousing with her husband’s son. The husband (David Fox) stands in the road – drunk. The son, Chester (McKinney) swerves to miss Dad – there is a crash! Hubby proceeds to free his wife from the overturned car (– did I say he was drunk?) by amputating her leg – but he gets the wrong leg! He saws off the good leg! And then the other one!
Now Dad runs a streetcar through the frosty streets of Winnipeg, ruing the day. Chester has returned home from a stint in the Big Apple – a big Broadway Producer down on his luck. When he sees his former lovers contest he drags his girlfriend Narcissa (Medeiros) to her office and declares he’s in: he will represent the U.S. and win the 25 big ones. The Lady laughs! He has no sense of sorrow – how could he possibly!? “It’s all showbiz” says Chester. Port-Huntley has no legs but she has chutzpa – and Teddy, a gigolo who services her on a see-saw while a blind-folded band plays mood music.
The contest also lures Chester’s brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan) who is now ‘Gravillo the Great’. Roderick is a doomster --world famous for his cello, his tragic mien and his dark veil. He will represent Serbia. (Little do they know that Narcissa is Roderick’s former wife!) Even Dad chimes in with a song, representing Canada, before he is eliminated in early rounds against Mexico.
Everything points to a face off between the two brothers – one is all feeling, the other all show biz. With tongue firmly in cheek the film illustrates a moral: we must face the music -- the sadness. Chester’s fatal flaw is that he refuses to look at the deep sadness in his soul. It finishes him finally and that spectacle is the saddest music in the world.
Maddin and his editor have worked together on many projects, a rich, productive relationship that works with hand in glove precision. McKinney is a delight as the smarmy, silver-tongued Chester. Rossellini brings immense charm and European spice to this Canadian stew while McMillan’s Roderick finds ways to become ever more tragic, tortured and gloom stricken – he’s wonderful. All the major players get the joke and work it for all it’s worth.
And for that matter many of the non speaking roles are handled deftly by actors (extras) who may have been given little guidance as to the flavor and content of the film. I read once Maddin has no rehearsals and just starts shooting day 1 – and this with his principles.
If so it betrays a weakness: actors need to prepare emotionally just as track & field athletes do physically – they need to warm up and they need to know what is expected. To ask the average extra to master the supreme irony of a Guy Maddin film, who’s script they have never seen, who’s theme and story they may luck happily onto the morning of the shoot, third hand from a costume person, is like asking a cocktail waitress at a casino to fill in for a magician who suddenly falls ill – it won’t work and it doesn’t.
For every extra that by sheer luck has what it takes there is one who reminds us of what dead air is. For a filmmaker so in love with artifice, who has freed himself from the rigor of realism, this should be no obstacle at all. But it is a trap and whether he felt above the issue or he felt the need to employ these people as a gesture to the community or the greater film and grant giving community, or if it is a facet of filmmaking that he has yet to master -- he fell into it.
There is also a tendency to repeat the same old show tune over and over. As much as the tune is lovely old show tunes are plentiful and offer innumerable options and they are cheap cheap and inexpensive and variety is the spice of life etc, etc.
That said: ‘The Saddest Music’ is a unique tonic to the formulaic film and the formulaic life and should you find yourself burdened with either don’t jump from your high-rise! – see this film. You’ll thank me and probably disagree with me. It is a lovely antidote for the everyday and an impressive work from a major artist in the quirky wonder-world of experimental film. Maddin’s best films are ahead of him -- that I will buy a ticket to – and so should you.