Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's Interesting About George Gershwin?

The news that Steven Spielberg is interested in doing a George Gershwin biopic surprised me at first, though it really shouldn't have. Gershwin sometimes comes off as a character wandering through a particular time period, who has his own goals and is willing to use the conventions of his time to do something unusual -- he took jazz, Broadway and the musical cultures of both America and Europe, and fused them into something unique and very difficult to imitate. As a creature of his time and a person somewhat out of step with his time, he probably has something in common with Spielberg's better lead characters: Frank Abignale, early '60s misfit; Indiana Jones, '30s weirdo. And not to psychoanalyze too much, but you've got to wonder if Spielberg thinks he has some kind of kinship with Gershwin, who also became incredibly successful incredibly young.



But all that said, I'm just not sure what's interesting about Gershwin's life, as opposed to his work. While I'm sure it's possible to make a Gershwin biopic that's more exciting than Rhapsody In Blue, there's still the problem that he didn't do a whole lot besides work. And an artist's work is almost impossible to portray in a conventional narrative movie, which is why it always comes down to one or two scenes of him getting sudden inspirations.

(With someone who came up with melodies as easily as Gershwin did, some of these stories are even true, or at least they're told outside of the movies. There's a famous story Ira Gershwin told of his brother waking him up in the middle of the night to play the march melody that had just come to him, which became "Strike Up the Band." And when Porgy and Bess was in development, Gershwin improvised something for Ira and DuBose Hayward to show what he thought Porgy's aria might sound like; they told him that tune was perfect as it was, and they wrote it up as "I Got Plenty Of Nuttin'.")

Yes, Gershwin wanted to prove that a pop composer could write "serious" music for the concert hall, and had to deal with critics who didn't take him seriously. (This might have some connection to the way Spielberg sees himself.) But the thing is, there's not much story there. Gershwin's emergence as a concert-hall composer came almost as soon as he'd established himself as a star Broadway/pop composer. He continued to balance both his Broadway and concert work for years. The work is fascinating; the process is not, because he always did pretty much what he set out to do. The only thing that stopped him was death.

And that's the point: the most interesting thing about Gershwin's life is his death. Gershwin died before he really achieved all he wanted to. He was trying to figure out how to fuse the three strands of American musical life -- European-influenced classical, Broadway-influenced pop, and jazz -- and no one after him was able to do it. (Leonard Bernstein could talk about it, and he knew how to do it in theory, but he was not able to put it into practice.) Just as no one was able to make an interesting Mozart play/movie without telling it from the point of view of his supposed rival -- Peter Shaffer, and Pushkin before him -- I feel like a more interesting Gershwin story is the story of the American musical culture of the era, the people who were jealous of or fascinated by Gershwin's success (or both: Virgil Thomson's reaction to Porgy and Bess is a weird mixture of snobbery, insight, and perhaps resentment that Gershwin was stealing the thunder of Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts). But I doubt that's what this movie is going to be about.

Since this post has become more about Gershwin than Spielberg, I'll say that I think of Porgy and Bess as one of the three great dead ends in the history of the musical theatre. The other two are The Magic Flute and Carmen. All three of these are works that fuse serious and popular, opera and musical (singspiel in the case of Mozart, opera-comique in the case of Bizet, and Broadway in the case of Gershwin). All three seemed to point the way to a new kind of opera, an alternative to the style that was becoming dominant; Nietzsche went crazy over Carmen because he thought it was the perfect alternative to Wagner and Wagnerism. And in all three cases, the composer died soon after, each one in his thirties, each one without ever writing a follow-up to his breakthrough work. None of these three works were ever able to found a "school" per se; they became great, popular, freakish works that pointed the way to something that never happened.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think an argument could be made that Carmen pointed the way to the Italian 'Verismo' operas.

Mr. said...

Not saying it's a good idea, but the sense of limited time might drive the plot, the way it did in that Bobby Darin biopic Kevin Spacey attempted. Of course, Gershwin was healthy as a bull most of his short life, so mebbe not.

Walter Rimler said...

Actually, Gershwin lived a very dramatic life, especially in his final years. His death at 38 from a brain tumor was not merely the tragedy of a sudden illness that robbed him of his life and us of him and the works he would have composed. The drama of this tragedy lay in the way he was treated--mistreated--by some of the people closest to him, both friends and family.

Anonymous said...

An interesting film might be made just concentrating on the writing, casting, staging and reaction of the original Porgy & Bess

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Spielberg should consider a dual biography (in the manner of "Ross and Tom" biography of one-hit wonders Ross (Raintree County) Lockridge and Thomas (Mister Roberts) Heggin) of George Gershwin and Irving Thalberg, both young men who gained early success, industry-wide admiration, and were struck down in their mid-thirties in untimely deaths.

Anonymous said...

This smells like another "Always" about to happen.

Jenny Lerew said...

All I want to know is--who can possibly have the chops to play Levant?