Inspired by the romantic songs of the Great Depression, an unhappily married travelling music salesman (Steve Martin, The Man With Two Brains) dumps his aloof wife (Jessica Harper, Dario Argento’s Suspiria) for the love of a kindhearted school teacher (Bernadette Peters, John Huston’s Annie), with tragic consequences.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“I want to live in a world where the songs come true.”
Choreographer-filmmaker Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl and Footloose) pulled out all the stops to bring Dennis Potter’s six-part limited TV series of the same name to the big screen. Pennies from Heaven isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s nearly impossible not to be enthralled by the sheer ambition and audacity of Ross’s vision.
Pennies from Heaven is one of the most complex movie musicals I’ve ever seen, both thematically and technically. The film examines the perennial connection between human sorrow and escapism. It correctly states that during the Great Depression, Americans embraced the fantasy world of songs and movies to escape their bleak reality.
The film deepens the connection between unhappiness and fluffy entertainment by mixing highly stylized musical numbers with straight dramatic moments. It is that paradoxical relationship between Hollywood’s cheerful fictional world and the social and economic despair of the ’30s that makes the film fascinating watch.
Granted, this isn’t the only musical that combines music with serious drama (e.g., West Side Story, Cabaret, All That Jazz, etc.), but Pennies from Heaven is almost unbearably bleak at times. Infidelity, abortion, prostitution, bankruptcy, murder, etc., it’s a nonstop parade of pain and sadness. But the movie is as gorgeous as it is ugly.
The camerawork by Gordon Willis (The Godfather and All the President’s Men) is fantastic. Willis handles the shifts of tone masterfully: one scene is bright and perky, the next scene is dark and gloomy. They are some stunning recreations of paintings by Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. The eye-popping art deco sets are pretty incredible. And the Busby Berkley-like surreal musical numbers are sensational.
As I said before, Pennies from Heaven does have a few flaws. Actors lip-sync popular ’20s and ’30s melodies, and I thought that was a mistake. I would have preferred to see the actors give their own spin to the well-known songs. In the case of Bernadette Peters, who is an accomplished singer, it’s almost a crime not to let her use her own singing voice (Peters does us her own voice, briefly, near the end of the movie).
By the way, I didn’t like Steve Martin here. Martin’s SLN vibe is at odds with the naturalistic performances of Peters and Jessica Harper, who is excellent as Martin’s wife. On the other hand, Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter) is extraordinary as a heartless gangster. When Walken jumps on a pool table and starts dancing, the movie goes from great to sublime. Frankly, I was shocked! I was so taken aback by Walken’s superb dance routine that I had to replay the sequence multiple times.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Pennies from Heaven bombed at the box office, and it isn’t difficult to see why that happened. It must have been hard for regular viewers to enjoy a movie that shifts tone from scene to scene: one moment you want to get up and dance, and the next moment you want to slice your wrists. It’s definitely a challenging, but richly rewarding experience. A must-see for fans of musicals. Color, 108 minutes, Rated R.
Original Theatrical Trailer: