As a way to recover from a traumatic week, I decided to go with the comfort of musical comedy from 1981. Unfortunately having not done my research as much as I should have wheel these films were musicals they certainly weren’t comedies.
The reason behind this misunderstanding came from my first choice, Pennies From Heaven. I saw Steve Martin’s name and read the briefest description and I went in expecting screwball comedy with a soundtrack. It wasn’t one.
Based on the 1978 BBC miniseries created by Dennis Potter starring Bob Hoskins (not the 196 film of the same name starring Bing Crosby) Potter adapts his own script for the film version.
Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker a struggling salesman in a loveless marriage, living in the great depression. He wants to open a record store but the Bank won’t front a loan unless they get collateral from his wife’s inheritance which she won’t give him. Into this he meets and falls in love with a demure teacher played by Bernadette Peters.
Throughout this we keep drawn into musical fantasies with the cast lip syncing and classics like “Let’s Misbehave” and, of course “Pennies from Heaven” at first this just seems like schtick but as the film continues they become much more beautiful and at the same time ironic as the lives of our characters slowly flow down the drain making the sad reality of the depression even more depressing.
By the end of this became almost hard to watch. Still it was interesting watching Martin and Peters playing against type and the musical numbers were wonderfully done.
I’m embarrassed to say that for the most part all I knew about the Zoot Suit was they were an example of one of 1940s bad taste in fashion mostly seen through Al Capp’s Zoot Suit Yokum Parody. I was not aware of it the racial connotations it had due to it’s popularity amongst Mexican-American, Filipino and Italian-American youth as well as being a symbol of identity in the Chicano movement.
Our story is a dramatization of the events surrounding the events of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, where a group of young Mexican-Americans are charged with a crime they didn’t commit through an almost comically biased trial and the Zoot Suit Riots that happened later .
All of this is done in a wonderfully stylized way that is everything I like in filmed theater.
The best part of this is Olmos as El Pachua, a sort of idealized god of the Zoot Suiters. He is one part master of ceremonies one part narrator and one part conscience to the films lead played by Valdez. Omnipresent he stands unseen making snarky remarks as well as providing advice to Valdez that is frequently as self destructive as it is useful
This is was a fascinating study of ethnic identity which struggles to survive when a larger identity is trying to keep it down.