Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Cradle Will Rock

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Cradle Will Rock

4/10

USA 1999, dir. Tim Robbins, stars John Turturro, Bill Murray

Cradle Will Rock is the sort of film that gives left-wing film-making – or what passes for it these days in the USA – a bad name. In fact, it also gives backstage musicals and period political dramas of all shades a bad name as well. It takes some kind of special talent to make a film with Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Emily Watson, John Turturro, Susan Sarandon and two Cusacks – John and Joan – so resolutely ordinary, but Tim Robbins has managed it. It also takes a heck of a lot of nerve for a bog-standard director like Robbins to make a film in which presents an unflattering portrait of one cinema’s greats, Orson Welles, but here we have it.

Cradle Will Rock tells the story of how, in the mid-30s, Welles broke new theatrical ground by staging a production of The Cradle Will Rock – it’s typical of smartass Robbins to drop the ‘The’ for no good reason – which was the first American musical to tackle social issues. The fact that you have almost certainly never heard of this groundbreaking piece of work is, based on the evidence from this film, largely because it is no bloody good. The musical’s author, Marc Blitzstein – deftly played by Hank Azaria – may have been historically vital in the development of American political art – a development which, we are presumably invited to deduce, was to culminate in this movie! – but he was clearly no Kurt Weill or Eugene O’Neill.

What’s interesting about Blitzstein’s work is that it was funded by an experimental and sadly short-lived Federal Theater Program, and it’s the struggles between the Program – led by the formidable Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones, excellent) and her political opponents in congress that provides the real drama. Robbins, unfortunately, is more interested in backstage shenanigans, most of which consist of a large number of people in the frame talking at once. Whatever he picked up from his films with Robert Altman, it didn’t include any idea of how to handle either sound or crowded sets, and his directorial flourishes – such as the ‘ghost’ of Kurt Weill (never mind Weill was still alive during the film’s timeframe) appearing over Blitzstein’s shoulder – are often embarrassingly clunky. Robbins may mean well, but that hardly excuses his sledgehammer techniques which reach their sorry climax with a fancy-dress ball in which Welles’ nemesis William Randolph Hearst is presented dressed up as the Pope.

The production is, however, so handsomely mounted, and the ensemble cast is made up of such professionals that the shortcomings of Robbins and Blitzstein don’t entirely torpedo the enterprise altogether. Bill Murray provides an invaluable one-man salvage job as an apolitical ventriloquist whose opposition to the FTP is strictly professional – “Those communists… they just aren’t funny” he complains – and his final scene, in which he and his dummy have simultaneous on-stage breakdowns, is so amazing it just might make you forgive and forget the previous two hours.

by Neil Young