Monday, November 23, 2009

'Song' to Forget


"A Song to Remember" is a routine biopic about the life of pianist and composer Frederic Chopin. Released in 1945, this big, colorful film features a few good moments here and there but otherwise offers nothing new about Chopin or excites in its storytelling.

In fact, I wondered whether I should even write about it. Sometimes the hardest films to review are ones that are mediocre -- not good, not bad. I even misplaced my notes about this film, which I saw a few months ago. But I decided to forge ahead, as not every old film is a classic.

The film traces the life of Chopin (Cornel Wilde), his teacher Joseph Elsner (Paul Muni) and his love George Sand (Merle Oberon). The story itself never goes beyond any standard biography of Chopin that can be found in an encyclopedia or online. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the movie isn't made with any flair. Oddly enough, the director, Charles Vidor, made "Gilda" the very next year, and that film I liked much more and blogged about recently.

Because the film is made in color, it sometimes feels like the sets and costumes take precedence. There's one scene early on when Chopin plays background music for a large state dinner party. The camera swoops around the lavishishly dressed guests and opulent table setting one too many times before showing how the guests begin to appreciate the wonderful music being played. The scene lasts too long. And with a standard script, the pacing needs to move more quickly.
Despite the lavishness of certain scenes, there are times when the sets look too much like the back lot rather than Europe.

As for the actors, they present contrasting styles, and this works against the movie. If you look at the poster, it appears that Muni and Oberon are the stars, when in fact it's Wilde who has the central role and romance. His good looks were snapped up by audiences of the time, even if the performance is little more than competent. But he did receive an Oscar nomination, and it was a breakthrough that moved him up from B movies to the A list. Oberon is surprisingly good here as the woman who wields influence over Chopin. Muni seems to be in a different movie altogether, very mannered and blustery. He's a better actor than the other two, but in trying to find a deeper characterization, he seems out of step.

At nearly two hours, "Song" feels long. I kept my finger poised on the Tivo fast forward at several points but resisted temptation to do so. I can't say that I disliked the film, but I hesitate at recommending it unless you know what to expect.

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