Long lost in the archives, Rhapsody in Blue found its way out for two and a half hours on TCM recently and sparkled as a cavalcade of Gershwin’s magnificent music as played by peerless early interpreters of that sublime, swinging, inspired art: Oscar Levant, Paul Whiteman, Hazel Scott, and Anne Brown prominent among them. I was glad they had come out to see the sunlight and feel the breezes. Out of respect, filmdom has made sure that for these great musicians awakening and emerging from dusty shelves and old film reels, New York and Paris and clothes styles and automobiles and concert halls and hotel rooms still look to them just like they did in Gershwin’s day; and goodness they look very good. The seminal Gershwin interpreters, again alive, enervated and happy, respond with incomparable renditions of Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, Concerto in F, Cuban Overture, and Porgy and Bess, together with some of the classic songs, most notably “Embraceable You” and the historic “I Got Rhythm.”
Officially, the movie is supposed to be a biopic of George Gershwin. Go ahead and chuckle. We’ve learned enough about Hollywood biopics of artists, mathematicians, scientists and so forth, have we not? You know: the nearly universal warning: if you want to see a bad movie, go to a biopic. However, the witty Oscar Levant, who plays himself in the movie as well as playing the major piano parts in Gershwin’s orchestral classics better than anyone before or since, supposedly improvised many of his lines in a classy wisecracking style that is a running corrective to the odd take on his friend’s life and is principally responsible for keeping the story part of the movie limping along with some laughs in a sophisticated style of those times. Apropos, Levant said of Rhapsody in Blue that even the lies about Gershwin are lies. Otherwise, I can definitely say that Robert Alda looks like George Gershwin. And Charles Coburn smokes cigars. Meanwhile, Alda/Gershwin falls in love twice in Rhapsody in what are entirely fictional episodes. (Even the lies are lies.)
But: You get Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, and not only are they wonderful and bring in a sublime nostalgia but you don’t have to strain to hear beautiful premonitions of Ellington, Goodman and the Swing Era in this pivotal, seminal orchestra.
And: you get the superb, delicious, swinging Hazel Scott, jazz player extraordinaire, singing and playing Gershwin songs in a beautiful swanky (no other word will do) night club said to be in the Paris of expatriates (I’m guessing she was intended to suggest Josephine Baker) and she plays in a variety of styles “I Got Rhythm,” probably Gershwin’s greatest gift to jazz (the perfect thanks for the gifts jazz gave him), the tune so central to bebop and Charlie Parker and that inspired revolution. I’m guessing few principals in the making of Rhapsody had much idea of what Scott was about here: a jazz tutorial/homage.
And: To say it again, you get Levant playing Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue.
The real biopic here is entirely dramatized by Gershwin’s great music. The classic orchestral pieces have the most wonderful and original jazz licks in them: long, compelling, impelling and absolutely beautiful lines like mighty and surprising stanzas in poems. Listening to Levant spin them out is a transporting tale of Gershwin’s genius.
Rhapsody in Blue is like an Astaire-and-Rogers movie. You can deal with the storyline interludes because you know that soon you will see the dancing or, in Rhapsody, hear the music, that music played by early performers you have to believe all got some of the original, fresh Gershwin in their souls. It’s the only night club where you can hear these renditions.