My far better half is convinced that I'm living in the wrong era. I enjoy old films, I admire the fashions of the early twentieth century - particularly from the 20's to the 40's - and I very rarely listen to any music if it's less than fifty years old. My current AV amp is LAN enabled and allows me to listen to the compressed delights of internet radio - the majority of stations stored in the bookmarks are old time swing or big band stations. One is even called “The 1920's Radio Station”. I somehow manage to mix modern gadgets with my love of the old time music as well - my IPod has about 7000 tracks on it from the early twentieth century - when people laugh at Laurel and Hardy films, my foot is tapping to the music - you get the idea...
So when it was announced that Eureka were releasing The Benny Goodman Story, I was a little like Hermione Grainger answering a question in a spells class when they asked for a volunteer to review it! Benny Goodman is the man who is often credited with inventing “Big Band” music that went on to make stars of the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.
The film covers the period of Benny's life from when he was 10 years old in 1919 up until his groundbreaking concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938. Steve Allen plays Goodman in his prime. Allen was a well known TV actor in America when this film was made and was an accomplished pianist - but he couldn't play the clarinet - Goodman's instrument of choice. So to make the clarinet playing scenes look authentic, Allen took lessons from Benny Goodman himself and by all accounts, by the time the film was in the can, was also a dab hand on the clarinet. However, all the clarinet pieces in the film are played by Benny Goodman.
The film also features Benny Goodman's original quartet as themselves along with Sammy Davis Snr and Donna Reed as Alice Hammond, the future Mrs Goodman. The only other film I can remember seeing Donna Reed prior to this one was It's A Wonderful Life where she played second string to James Stewart - who was brilliant in that film. When that particular disc comes out of its case again in a couple of months for its annual viewing, I shall be paying a little more attention to Ms Reed. Not only is she a fantastic actress, she's also drop dead gorgeous!
If I'm honest with myself, the film is a bit hit and miss when it comes to the acting, direction and storyline. It's also very fluffed up as apparently, in real life, Benny Goodman was not a very nice person and treated Alice with very little respect. But it's not going to be able to put a foot wrong in my eyes because it's absolutely jam packed to the gills with Benny Goodman's music. Each scene that doesn't include any music seems as though it's put there to link to the next one that does. Of course it attempts to tell the story of his life - but his life was his music - and that's what this film is all about.
Having never seen Benny Goodman perform, it would be unfair of me to judge Steve Allen's performance as the man himself. The big band scenes though are well put together and Allens miming to Goodman's playing is very convincing. As I said earlier, I believe the story plays second fiddle to the music anyway. Of course there's the romance between Goodman and Alice which for the majority of the time was a long distance relationship. As a band, The Benny Goodman Quartet made most of their money on the road. They would play live radio shows and became so popular that they were chosen to open a musical festival at Carnegie hall in 1938. The concert started at 10am and it was expected that the hall would remain empty until the evening and that Goodman's band would play to an empty hall. To his surprise, as the stage lifts and the audience come into view, the hall is packed to the rafters. This was the start of the bands rise to fame and the first of many sell out concerts.
Obviously my mark for the film will be based on just that - the film. If I could mark it on the music alone it would be a stone cold ten out of ten. But - because there's not much of a storyline between tunes, the film itself is pretty mediocre. Personally I could watch it all day just to hear the music - but I don't think that many people reading this review will take the same view of it as me.
At the end of the film, as Benny's mother leans over to Donna Reed and asks if Benny has asked her to marry him yet, Benny is playing live on stage - as Donna Reed says “I think he just has” and the words “The End” covered her face, I longed for the film to go on for one more tune. It's not for everybody - but I dare you to try it. You might just like it...
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