Burn It, Blue! | Texas Public Radio

Burn It, Blue!

Feb 6, 2012

If you collect DVDs, you probably come across titles that are no longer in print. Netflix won’t rent these, and looking for them online can give you a case of sticker shock--prices can be 8 to 10 times what they cost new. The problem is money: studios gear up for production, and to recoup their investment they have to sell lots of units of a popular film to make a profit. This means that titles with limited commercial value usually don’t reach the market. Now that shops are glutted with used copies of the pop movies, studios are rethinking that strategy and releasing on-demand DVDs, essentially burned to order.

Warner’s 1945 film “Rhapsody in Blue” is the bio-pic of the short but meteoric life of George Gershwin. Made in 1945, many of those associated with the pianist –including composer and pianist Oscar Levant, bandleader Paul Whiteman, and performers Al Jolson and Anne Brown, play themselves in this two and one half hour film overflowing with Gershwin’s memorable and catchy music. The story told to us is true, but Hollywood conventions rule, and after a glimpse of George teaching himself piano by playing along with a player piano we rush to the crowded family apartment and, withstanding some lower East side accents that are too broad for a “borscht belt” comedian, we meet the family. Thankfully these dated stereotypes disappear and Gershwin’s career proceeds from strength to strength.

There is Gershwin’s association with the George White and his “scandals,” and the famous “jazz experiment” with Paul Whiteman at Aeolian Hall where we get a nearly complete “Rhapsody in Blue” with actor Robert Alda finger-synching the music at the piano. It is the performances of Gershwin’s music that come off best, with the best interpreter of Gershwin’s piano music, Oscar Levant, doing most the playing. A  P.O.V. shot of Gershwin experiencing the “city of light” to his “An American in Paris” is beautiful to behold, and Hazel Scott singing and playing music with “George” right up front in a Parisian night club is amazing.

During the film there are plenty of hints that Gershwin was pushing himself so hard because he remembered a print of Franz Schubert hanging in his piano teacher’s studio and knew how short a time that Viennese composer had. Schubert died at 31, and Gershwin? He lived a little longer, but the end came suddenly when he died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. There is an amazing crane shot at Gershwin’s memorial concert with Levant at the piano, as we look down on the stage and suddenly and smoothly fly upwards to see more and more of the landscape until the piano is a tiny black rectangle, seemingly miles below. The music is still loud and gorgeous, and we get a real sense of Gershwin’s contribution to this country.  

The downside of this film is hearing Gershwin’s music being used almost non-stop in the old Warner fashion to telegraph emotional shifts. It's not surprising, since this is the studio where Max Steiner worked, and while he perfected this technique, it is overused. It is a shame that Gershwin’s great gift is presented in such a tawdry way. Maybe this was Warner Bros. making sure they get their money’s worth after paying for the music rights.

A manufactured-on-demand DVD, "Rhapsody In Blue" has a purple-blue playing side because it is burned like one you could do at home. The quality is good, the print used to make the disc is very fine and the black & white image doesn’t have too much contrast or grain. There was a hiccup about 143 minutes into the film where the screen went black and the sound stopped. A moment later it started again with no more problems. The opening of the DVD is disconcerting with the word “Overture” on a black background and over ten minutes of Gershwin’s music all mashed together in an experiment in tedium. Maybe the overture was for audiences at the theater to trickle in to, but it doesn’t work to hear so much music with no context or images. The disc includes a trailer.