If there is a genre known as ‘feel-good’, then Tim Robbins’ second film as director, Cradle Will Rock (1999) applies to it. The feel-good starts early on, and even though Cradle Will Rock covers pretty grave economic times, it does so with the froth to the max, with everyone belting out the same stylised version of the zippy 1930s. The feeling good continues in comedy, song and in about 300 extras – all the way to the finish.
I should get the bad stuff out the way sooner rather than later and mention that Cradle Will Rock is a terrible name for a film; and it is also the name of the musical under production in the film, and the songs in that musical are pretty poor. But all else is well. Barbara Sukowa plays John Turturro’s wife; probably the only extraneous part in the film. As her character is not an artist or theatre person, there is very little for Sukowa to do, other than play a side drama to John Turturro. There are few films out there that deal with the rise of the Italian Black Shirts in Mussolini’s time – as seen from an Italian American point of view, and Sukowa is cast as a non-Italian – merely described by Turturro’s fascist brother as ‘Anglo Saxon’ – enough to spilt the family, however. And the politics are weirdly precise, and complicated too, because the film is made by and for the US liberal intelligentsia.
It’s not unusual for actors to make films about acting and the arts in general, and as actor turned directors they can also often assemble impressive casts, made up of people who look like they are out for fun. Included here are Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, Vannessa Redgrave, Ruben Blades (as Diego Rivera – complete with a moody Frieda Khalo) John Cusack (as Nelson Rockefeller) John Turturro and Philip Baker Hall. Also core to the success of this film is a strong showing from actress Cherry Jones, as the beleaguered head of the Unites States Federal Theatre. The list goes on; Jack Black shows enormous early comic power here, and definitely gets the biggest laughs of the film, and Paul Giametti plays a strange role, quite unlike anything he’s really done before or since.
Did I miss anyone out? Yes! Cary Elwes; Hank Azaria of course; and Glasgow’s own Angus Macfadyen, who is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant as Orson Welles. Angus Macfadyen is possibly the star of this star-loaded show, and he plays a brilliant Welles, without looking much like Orson, or trying too hard to capture the Welles way. he just performs perfectly, and gets a big hats off not only for the silver laced delivery of his snappy lines, but for sheer presence. Cheers Angus!
Special mention also goes to Emily Watson for a sensitive performance which seems to carry all of the yearning of this movie spectacular, which is locked in those marvellous eyes of hers, perhaps never to be released.
There are so many ideas in Cradle Will Rock that could only have been conceived of by an actor; a writer besieged by dream images of Bertolt Brecht; an entire audience moving along the street to a second theatre; and a general inquisition into theatre art, and its role in society.
To Brits and Europeans Cradle Will Rock seems like fairly pleasant fare; although it is odd think that the reason we have never heard of it is because in North America, this fairly liberal and fact based film is looked upon as a pretty left-leaning piece of pinko-propaganda. Just hit a nerve I guess.