I’ve seen two very different movies in the past two days that have one thing in common: the actors were also musicians, and the films worked music into the stories in such brilliant ways that the performers could look perfectly natural and pleased to be playing their music. And I saw something in these two movies and their use of music that has been sadly missing from many a story these days.
The first film was the new indie flick Once that has the obvious music plot of two starving musicians trying to make music. Sure, you can read that and think it sounds pretty cliché – I did, too – but the movie is beautiful in its simplicity. And the music is … sad and happy. I really liked it.
We didn’t watch the second movie for its music but for its connection to the famous Groucho Marx letter to Warner Brothers. The movie is, of course, A Night in Casablanca. I’ve never been a big Marx Brothers fan, too much slapstick for my taste. This movie had two magical scenes, however, that both involved music. First we have Chico covering for a bandleader at the piano. You know a musician is good when he makes it look so easy. Chico plays as though he’s just doodling on a piano, improvising a little something for the camera, teasing his audience with a little Liszt. Later on, Harpo is alone with a Rembrandt of a lovely woman and a harp. He plays to his Rembrandt mistress, but it’s the only time in the whole film when he’s absolutely serious. That is what struck me most about Chico’s and Harpo’s performances – the way their faces completely change while they’re playing. For those few moments, all the slapstick is finally gone and the over-the-top pranks are put aside and they just play. They just make music, and it’s downright beautiful music. For me, I feel like I had to put up with the rest of the 85 minutes just to see those two performances.
But the song in my head for the past two days is “Romeo and Juliet” by Indigo Girls, which has nothing to do with either movie… except perhaps the line “it’s just that the time was wrong” which would fit into Once perfectly.