The Cradle Will Rock: The Review
Directed By: Tim Robbins
Starring: John Cusack, Jack Black, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, Hank Azaria, Emily Watson, Ruben Blades, John Turturro and Angus Macfadyen.
"It all started with hearing the story of the night when Orson Welles´ company defied censorship and risked everything to perform the show,"
says director/writer/producer Tim Robbins.
Right off the top I have to let you know that Cradle Will Rock is not an easy film to sum up in just a few sentences let alone review within a couple of columns. However, that is the gig here and I suppose I am willing to give it a shot.
Cradle Will Rock (according to the opening credits) is the mostly true story of the staging of a pro-union, anti-big-business
musical in 1936 that was thought by some to be Communist propaganda.
The original play (that runs throughout the film) called The Cradle Will Rock was written and composed by Marc Blitzstein (played by Hank Azaria).
The film unravels at first like a Robert Altman film, with all sorts of mini-stories taking place.
Soon the stories begin to jell with one another though and the satire turns into a screwball comedy from the era in which it takes place. The atmosphere, despite the satire, remains tense throughout. Everybody seems busy with some sort of hidden agenda. The 'fat cats' of the steel and oil industries are privately funding the fascist
powers, buying art works as the cover for transactions. The political right are trying to shut down the Federal Theatre Project because they feel it isn't in their best interests to fund plays that threaten the very fabric of their existence. And poor Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen). He is busy trying to put on a play, but the aforementioned political right manages to shut down his production the very day before Cradle Will Rock is supposed to go on stage. This simply will not do!
Like Welles' Mercury Theatre Players, Director/Writer Tim Robbins
falls back on his own reliable crew. Wife and fellow activist Susan Sarandon plays Margherita Sarfatti. Once Benito Mussolini's mistress, she is now the woman who makes the deals with the industrialists. Like all the others in this cast, she is superb, blotting out any memory of that Stepmom film I saw her in. Tim's good buddy John Cusack plays Nelson Rockefeller, and not nearly as evil as I would have expected. His own dilemma is that he hires famed painter Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) to paint a mural in the lobby of Rockefeller plaza. The debates that ensue between Diego and Rockefeller may seem one dimensional but they do provide great (and necessary) comedy relief. The argument of whether a patron has the right to exercise control over the artist and his vision is one that will undoubtedly go on
Another stand-out though not the strongest role in the film, and stuck with the weakest denouement, is Bill Murray. No longer playing gruff but lovable Tripper/Venkman characters from post SNL days gone by, but more complex characters like this Tommy Crickshaw, an alcoholic ventriloquist who is in denial about the death of vaudeville.
Crickshaw falls for Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) and tries to prove his love by showing his hate for those 'dirty reds'. Cusack is superb in her role as a WPA (Workers Progress Administration) who watches her whole world crumble around her when she testifies to the committee hearings. She believes she is helping the organization but inadvertently has just lead to part of its downfall. A third academy award nomination may not be that far off.
It may sound like I am down on this film and that is really not the case. I liked this movie. I liked it enough to say I wish more people would make movies like this, and I wish even more that hordes of people would see it.
But they won't.
I know in my heart of hearts that this is not going to be a box-office hit. The subject matter is politics, artistic vision, strikes and unions all tied up in an operatic musical. These are Oscar topics and aspirations, not box-office. I could be wrong, prove it and I'll be pleased as a little pleased thing can be pleased.
As a writer and director, Tim Robbins does something here that should occur more often. If you are going to fail, fail big! If you want to say something, take a stand, pick a side and fight the good fight. This is a rarity in the political malaise of modern day. People are so concerned about showing all the sides to the argument they forget
passion, they forget the reasons they get into their chosen fields. This film has characters that question these very passions, they tell themselves maybe it's better to deny their passions. Some (remarkably) do, while others can not, will not and soon find they are in the middle of events beyond their control. This is best exemplified by John Turturro who builds in this film like a fire. At first his scenes seem small, inconsequential but by the film's end he is blazing on the screen. He starts out as a bit player in Welles' production of Faustus but when faced with the dilemma of appearing
within the production and being tossed out of his own union he takes his stand and blows out in all directions.
A weaker version of the same theme is told in Olive Stanton's (Emily Watson) story. She starts out as a street singer, someone who will
sing for nickels and ends up on stage playing the prostitute with soul. Watson is an excellent actress and does as much as she can with the material given to her, but this was the one storyline/role that
honestly needed beefing up.
Well, what do you know about that? I said Robbins failed a couple of paragraphs back. Or at least I alluded to a failure. I shouldn't have. I don't see this as a failure, but it is of little matter. Sure, the film is flawed. Overall though it is a well-made/researched/written film,
by an intelligent man who is trying to entertain and provoke, two things that almost never go hand-in-hand. It reaches into history and tries to convey so much in so little time. A few of the storylines have cracks running through them. But the intent, and the inevitable payoff to all the stories in the end was more than worth the price of admission. The fact that the film tells as much as it does, as well as it does raises it well above the failure bar. The final twenty minutes is so well-orchestrated that I caught myself humming one of the show tunes as I left the theatre.
I often say I judge a movie by its 'rewatchable' factor. Would I ever sit down to this movie again?
Copyright© Written By: Rob Paul
Special Features: Featurette, Interactive Menus, Scene Access, Theatrical Trailer
Video Format: Widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio
Add'l Features: Enhanced for 16x9 TVs
Audio Tracks: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround: English
Running time of 132 minutes.
Coding: Regionally Coded for Region 1.
The DVD Scoop: