RB score: 10/10
Every once in a while, you have to go back and watch something that can be termed “iconic.” The close of the 1980s was marked by materialism, consumption and the shortening of attention spans nationwide, somewhat obliterating the 1970s creativity that persisted in the early 80s. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching this 1989 movie which somehow mirrors both sides of the decade, and where the leads, all fabulous three of them, have the opportunity to showcase their formidable skills.
The scene where Michelle Pfeiffer croons her rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee” while draped across a grand piano, wearing a slinky red sheath, has to be embedded in the collective moviegoing consciousness for all time. Men everywhere certainly were drooling, and as for us women, as the saying goes, we wanted to be her. This movie is about much more than the sum of its parts, though, those parts being firstly the slam-dunk casting of Pfeiffer as a sultry singer, Jeff and Beau Bridges, two brothers who make their living playing a double piano nightclub gig, and second all the other necessary ingredients: an intelligent script, flawless direction and excellent soundtrack. The way that it all gets put together that is not only a thrill to watch again in 2013, it almost makes me miss the late 80s.
The opening of the movie shows the Jack Baker half of the lounge act taking his leave from the hotel room of a casual conquest. The pale light coming in through the window at first appears to be the sunrise but as he steps outside to walk to the Seattle club where he will be playing that night, the viewer soon realizes Jack was waking up at sunset. Such is the lifestyle of a lounge musician. The lighting here is so beautiful that it effortlessly glamorizes the inherent grittiness of the story, yet the viewer knows the grit is present. It’s bits of granite after being put through a rock polishing machine. The cinematography is a visual masterpiece right from the beginning. Throughout the entire movie, but especially in the opening scene, the use of light was so mesmerizing I wanted to freeze every frame for later gazing.
The “Baker Boys” demonstrate in a very credible manner how relationships can be changed by the presence of a catalyst. When they decide to update their lounge act by hiring Pfeiffer’s Susie Diamond, it becomes apparent that the fault lines which have been there all along are going to widen and cause a quake in the brothers’ relationship. As the fault lines begin to grow, feelings are often communicated in a nonverbal way yet the resulting character developments are clean and distinct. Pfeiffer received a justifiable Best Actress nomination for taking a cliched concept (a former escort turned lounge singer) and giving “Susie Diamond” complex and subtle layers of human experience. Thanks to Pfeiffer, Susie is a stable, but not superficial, personality who undergoes no real change; the depth of her character is revealed in how she catalyzes these changes in others. It’s brilliant really – she is a true catalyst in that she provokes change largely without manipulation, making her one of my favorite film heroines of all time.
In my opinion, both Bridges should have received Oscar nods as well. The great acting in this film is not there to camouflage a poor script; rather, the actors enhance the material by nonverbal means such as their use of body language.
Beau Bridges as the older, more responsible Frank Baker, opens windows of insight into his character just by the expression in his eyes. Those eyes plead for cooperation from others. Being the manager, bookkeeper and babysitter, he essentially enables his younger brother to live in a state of suspended adolescence. Frank thus captures the familiar plight of the firstborn with touching accuracy. Taking responsibility has meant oftentimes making himself a fall guy so that he can take care of people who in turn view him with condescension for not being as cool as they are. This is the real-life paradox often lived out by the oldest child. Meanwhile, Jack Baker, at first glance, appears to have simply cornered the market on smoldering and smoking-hot. Slowly we discover he too has other dimensions, such as the unexplored talent in a pure jazz genre, his child from a previous relationship, and his inability to sustain relationships with anyone other than his dog. When Frank stopped doing the work on the relationship, it fell apart along with their lounge act and couldn’t be even partially mended until Jack took the first step. The damage caused by the fault lines did not vanish but the repairs were enough for each of the three to reclaim what they wanted out of life. Rather than a superficial resurrection of the original relationships, thankfully the movie took the more realistic approach of showing us something that transformed instead of being glued back together. Not much can make me miss the late 1980s but this is one of the great movies of that time period, that does. 10/10 and a true classic.