In the movies these days, you can show almost anything — people crawling up and down the sides of buildings, tidal waves crashing over Manhattan, an Olsen twin in a towel. But there's still one big taboo: singing, in the old-fashioned, let's-put-on-a-musical kind of way. And that's what makes Irwin Winkler's Cole Porter biopic "De-Lovely," an unapologetically old-fashioned film, so refreshing.
It celebrates words and music, and the emotions they evoke. Though its execution occasionally stumbles, the film is a sleek elegy for a time long gone — and for an art form that still survives.
Though "Chicago" burned up the box office in late 2002, the anticipated movie-musicals boomlet still hasn't arrived, perhaps because musicals that don't feature Catherine Zeta-Jones in fishnet stockings continue to be a tough sell. Now comes "De-Lovely," and it's got little of "Chicago's" sex appeal. Rather, it's a mostly faithful impressionistic biography, as composer Porter (Kevin Kline) looks back on his eventful life, staged as a musical and presented in a dream sequence, introduced by a mysterious gentleman (Jonathan Pryce).
This is about as high-concept as film biographies get, and while it provides some colorful opportunities for Winkler to stage musical numbers, it's kind of a cumbersome way to get the songs worked in. ("Chicago" employed a similar fantasy-sequence tactic for its musical numbers. It works, but sometimes you yearn for a movie, like the musicals of old or like Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You," in which people just sing, without a lot of fuss and apology.)
Anyway, Porter's songs add depth and dimension to "De-Lovely," like twinkling stars in a twilight sky. And Kline's performance as Porter feels exactly right. Though he looks nothing like the historical Porter (a rather squat, wide-eyed fellow), he's got the kind of formality — that clipped, precise diction — that perfectly suits a man of Porter's class and time.
The composer was a complicated man — a seemingly happy husband whose homosexuality was an open secret; a wealthy man who nonetheless constantly worried about having enough money; an artist whose seemingly simple melodies revealed great sophistication.
Kline, stepping through the movie with a dancer's grace, has perfect control here; suggesting secrets and pain with a raised eyebrow or a thin-lipped grin. And he's nicely matched by Ashley Judd, who uses her knowing smile to good effect as Porter's wife, Linda, a woman of such style that she sleeps in silk and pearls.
Though "De-Lovely" is far more frank about Porter's sexuality than the 1946 Porter film "Night and Day," it sometimes stumbles in the other direction (a gay bar in the film, for example, seems excessively art-directed, full of gentlemen with disarmingly perfect bone structure). And Winkler and screenwriter Jay Cocks can't keep a certain melodramatic flavor from the proceedings, particularly in the staging of Porter's near-fatal riding accident — but then again, they're dealing with a subject who had an undeniably melodramatic life.
Visually, "De-Lovely" is a treat; the costumes and colors are lavish and intricate, with the movie occasionally fading elegantly into art deco black and white. And the songs, warbled thinly by Kline (a trained singer who's toning down his talent to play the less mellifluous Porter) or sung by an all-star lineup of contemporary pop stars, are given center stage, as they deserve.
Elvis Costello, in a white tuxedo jacket, bounces happily through "Let's Misbehave"; lovely Vivian Green, surely a star in the making, delivers a spellbindingly bluesy "Love for Sale." Sheryl Crowe finds the shimmering tragedy at the heart of "Begin the Beguine," though her delivery is a tad mushy for my taste. (Perhaps she didn't hear Kline's instructions, in the film, to the cast of "Kiss Me, Kate": "Keep those consonants crisp!")
By the end, as an unabashedly theatrical light fades on the aged Porter, and we hear the reedy tones of the real Porter singing that delicious ode to friendship, "You're the Top," "De-Lovely" has found its voice. You just might leave the theater humming — and these days, that's pleasure enough.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com