The biopic has been done before… repeatedly. We have all seen dozens of biopics – if there’s a famous person whose life may be remotely interesting, why not making a movie out of it? The only real question then becomes, if you’re making a biopic, how do you go about making it interesting. The answer for director Irwin Winkler and writer Jay Cocks in putting together a biopic on Cole Porter is to do it as Cole helping orchestrate a stage a musical about his life. The result of this effort, De-Lovely, is nothing less than highly entertaining even if it isn’t the most illuminating.
The film stars Kevin Kline as Porter and Ashley Judd as Linda Lee Porter, his wife. What the film is more notable for however is that the majority of the songs are sung by well-known singers. From Robbie Williams to Sheryl Crow to Alanis Morissette to Elvis Costello and Vivian Green, every time someone who isn’t Kline or Judd open their mouths to sing it’s a cameo appearance and unfortunately all too often relegated to the background as nothing all too serious takes place in the foreground.
Essentially, what this results in is two big missed opportunities. First, there’s the fact that Porter was obviously a musical genius and the singers they’ve gotten to perform his songs here are outstanding. These are performances that should be heard in their entirety, not simply there to give a little bit of flavor to the film and to make you want to go out and buy the soundtrack (which I’ve owned since the film’s theatrical release and listen to on a semi-regular basis). Then there’s missed opportunity number two – if you’ve opted to have old Cole Porter looking back at the life of young Cole Porter why not give old Cole more than a couple of opportunities to complain about how things are being depicted or to lament his actions? The frame is the perfect way to provide a way in to the man’s thoughts and show the audience what Porter felt internally. It’s an opportunity simply not used to its full potential and consequently terribly disappointing.
Instead, what we’re offered is a very surface-based story of Cole Porter, a man who loved strongly, drank regularly, and wrote songs beautifully. It is pleasantly diverting as far as it goes, and Kline and Judd deliver good performances—as does the criminally underused Jonathan Pryce as the director of Cole’s life—but it should have been more. Like a wonderful melody struggling to emerge but never quite making it, there’s a great movie hiding just behind the scenes in De-Lovely, but it never gets onto the screen.
No, De-Lovely is, in the end, a movie that has great singers, great songs, a great story behind it, and a great way to tell the story. However, it fails to commit to its own storytelling method and that leaves one wondering why they bothered to utilize the frame in the first place. The way things stand with the movie, it is worse for having the frame because it gives a window into the film that should have been and not what the film is. There is even a moment towards the end of De-Lovely when a friend tells Cole that he’s “had the most fascinating life,” but after not seeing it on screen one wonders if the film is telling that audience that as much as it is being told to Cole. All in all, there is far too much telling and not enough showing going on in the movie – the most easy and obvious example of which is the fact that it’s never clear why Linda loved Cole as much as she did. Obviously she did, but the film never makes any sort of a case for it.
On the technical side of things, the new Blu-ray release of De-Lovely features some good black levels, and a good amount of details. Patterns on clothes in particular are quite detailed. Unfortunately, the level of detail present also makes it more obvious when Judd has makeup on specifically to age her, it becomes distracting and to some extent ruins the effect. Also on the negative side, there is a noticeable flicker in a number of scenes which is highly disconcerting. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is better than the visuals – the music is crisp and clean and beautiful to hear. The surrounds are mainly utilized with said music, providing a more immersive experience. There’s nothing grand about the sound, but there are no real disappointments in it either.
The release contains two audio commentary tracks, one with Winkler and Kline and the other with Winkler and Cocks. There are also the obligatory deleted scenes as well as a making-of piece and another shorter one on the music which contains interviews with many of the singers who appear in the film doing Porter’s songs. While the interviews are not the deepest, Porter’s songs are the best part of the film and learning more about the process of filming them is interesting. The two last featurettes both delve into how scenes were put together (one for each of the featurettes). Winkler and the cast and crew really get into how the scenes were constructed and both of these “Anatomy of a Scene” featurettes are exceedingly interesting. Not to harp on this yet again, but not for the first time MGM has opted to not include a main menu for the film. Every time this omission is made it is a mistake and a disappointment.
De-Lovely has a lot to recommend it, from great musical performances to an interesting main character. However, the film never comes together as well as it should – it never gets as deeply into the characters as it needs to and it never truly gives insight into why anything takes place. It should have been, and it could have been, so much more.
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: De-Lovely on Blogcritics.