Friday, April 18, 2008

Jazz Score: Mickey One

Call it a noble failure. Arthur Penn’s Mickey One was a somewhat experimental film for its time that fell short of its ambitions. It was graced with a great jazz soundtrack composed by Eddie Sauter, featuring Stan Getz’s tenor as the lead voice, in a follow-up to their collaboration on Getz’s classic album Focus. Little seen since its release, it is perfect title to showcase with a restored print during MoMA’s Jazz Score retrospective.

Warren Beatty plays Mickey (as he comes to be known), a comic on the run from the mob. For what he is not sure, but he seems to assume it involves the fast life he was living: women, booze, whatever. He drops out, taking anonymous menial work, until he suddenly finds himself back on stage in a seedy nightclub. Again, Mickey finds himself sucked into a place where show business and the underworld are scarcely distinguishable. Or perhaps not. Mickey’s perception of reality is highly suspect. This is indeed the sort of film that wants to blur the distinctions between the real and the illusionary.

Despite the hallucinatory sequences, Mickey has a relatively straight forward narrative structure if you chose to accept the events on-screen at face value. It is much more accessible than its reputation suggests, particularly in light of films which have come after it. Still, as a film, Mickey just does not work. A major reason is Beatty’s complete lack of believability as a comic. He is simply not funny and scenes of him in performance make the film even weirder. Even off the stage, this is not Beatty’s best work.

However, the music works brilliantly. Getz sounds especially lyrical blowing over Sauter’s lush charts. The opening theme “Once Upon a Time” is a beautiful accompaniment to the fall-from-grace montage that starts the film, a perfectly representative sequence of the swinging sixties and Penn’s New Wave auteur inspirations—if only the entire film had maintained that energy. With a full string section and great studio jazz veterans, like Clark Terry, Barry Galbraith, and Mel Lewis, the excellent late 1990’s CD reissue combines the original album release, which expanded the major themes into full performances, with the actual film soundtrack themes and cues.

There is no getting around the fact that Mickey One has serious flaws. Yet it is highly watchable—downright fascinating even. It screens at MoMA through Monday.