Saturday, September 19, 2009

Georgia (1995)

"Georgia" (Ulu Grosbard, 1995) One of those car-crashes of a movie that is tough to take your eyes away from. Belgian-born Ulu Grosbard is a gifted stage director whose gifts don't translate that well to screen although he is a favorite of actors Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro. As tamped down and graceless as his movies are in order to avoid melodrama, they also communicate a falseness of circumstance.

There's a concert staged early on in the film where the audience reacts counter to what's going on with the performances on-screen—the point that audiences will respond to a singer's sedate performance and barge over a soloist's part is a conceit to stack the dramatic deck, but it feels wrong, not because its communicating an obvious character point, but as an anomaly to reality. We are meant to see sister Sadie (
Jennifer Jason Leigh) basking in the glow of Georgia Flood's performance (Mare Winningham and Leigh both do their own vocals) as if it was her own, and the director wants to show that in the middle of the song (the traditional "Hard Times," which will become important later) rather than in an ovation at the end of it.

Despite the Winningham character's titular position, it is Leigh's Sadie that is the focus of the movie. It is a whirl-wind of a performance, sometimes falling off the tracks a bit as Sadie is a vagabond in a life that's not quite hers but lived in the shadow of her sister's. As Georgia is a singer, Sadie insists on being a singer, too, although she can't hold a note and can do little better than bellow and growl her way through any song. Georgia's ex-manager husband (
Ted Levine) calls her "original and brave and not malicious." Georgia finds her a pain in the neck, a wind-tossed ship always about to hit the rocks, if not for the harbor that Georgia provides.

It's the only control Sadie knows, and even that grates on her. Perpetually soused or stoned, one of her band-mates warns her that this time she has to "show up standing up," preferably both. But even that's too much. Sadie continually spirals between getting-by and the bottom of the barrel leading to her untouchable reflection. She looks to her sister's life and covets it as much as she despises it, even entering into an instant marriage with a love-sick grocery delivery boy who shows up at her door-step to create some kind of pathetic devotion.

But the screenplay (by Leigh's mother
Barbara Turner) saves the best lesson for last as both sister's—one at a concert venue, the other at a dive bar—do their own version of Georgia's signature "Hard Times," the veteran's soft and trill, the other's hard and rasping—and you wonder, which artisan's is the most valid: the soft comforting professional one, or the beaten-down craggy one that exposes every scar on the vocal chords? Which speaks the better truth of "Hard Times?"

Filmed in Seattle, it does make the city look fairly cosmopolitan (and even shows the lobby of
Bad Animals Studio!)

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