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Perhaps the few of us who feel that Late Astaire is the Greatest Astaire can push the rock away from our holes, come up and sun a bit. Astaire and Duke Wayne, arguably the greatest self-creations in all of the cinema, are blessed with auras that continue to fascinate scholars and just plain, old movie fans alike. And they should. The Duke may have had a limited range but who, in all Hollywood, was ever deeper? In fact he was the only Hollywood creation who could contain the weight of the whole world in his eyes when he rubs down his horse in that staggering masterpiece "The Searchers," and looks out over the horizon knowing that all he loves is being pillaged and murdered and that he is powerless to save them.
Astaire, the second great Hollywood creation, was not handsome, was not gifted with a chest that stood out like a cliff, nor did her have the radiant eyes that wooed you just by opening them. Instead he danced. Boy did he ever! The greatest ever! But did you also know that he was superb jazz-man?
There is the electrifying scene near the end of "The Sky is The Limit," that sly, under-appreciated master-work, where Fred, who feels that he has just lost the love of his life but can do nothing about it, does his greatest solo dance (and arguably the greatest solo dance put on film) and tries to dance his way out of his love's life and dance into the uncertain future of looming combat. This dance, to the tune of the towering Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer tune "One For My Baby," has thrilled fans for years and is often captured on anthologies on dance or on Fred's career.
But the breakdown of this dance, this music, this moment, has never been captured with such-behind-the-scenes mastery as Todd Decker reveals here. I had thought that perhaps only me and a few others understood the significance of this film and this dance but after Decker's sublime analysis such thoughts were stilled. He gets into the arrangement of the music, the hotness of the playing and if you feel that the RKO orchestra nuclear swings like Basie or Henderson on this piece, you might not be far off and Decker tells us why, offering up surprise after surprise as he does so. But "Sky" is only one treat. There are tons of others and this book, with its judicious insights and greedy archeology, spellbinds from the opening pages.
Of the four great studies on Astaire--(My word what other stars, save a few--Cagney, Bogart, Mitchum--has even one great study based on their work let alone two!)--John Mueller, Stanley Green, Arlene Croce and Decker's--it is my opinion that "Music Makes Me" can easily take its place with the other three as a definitive work on the Master. That's saying a lot. I know the passion of Astaire fans (and they are right to have this passion) and many will still want to place Green's and Mueller's books at the top of their own lists. That's fine by me for those studies are certainly worthy. But Todd Decker has done something exceedingly fine with "Music Makes Me;" he gets at the hidden things beneath an epic production, coaxes them to the surface and unveils their power for all to see. Written with a real feel for verve Decker has placed into our hands another important, dominant, work on one of the greatest artists America ever produced.
Then there is this: Mueller, Green and Croce cover Astaire the dancer but the secret things of the music that lay beneath much of that dancing lies dormant in comparison to Decker's "Music Makes Me" which takes as a general theme that the Master was not only crazy-mad for jazz, but that he was, at core, a great jazzman in his own way! This is a new and thrilling take on Astaire and some will want to read Decker ALONGSIDE the Green and Mueller works.
But, make no mistake. "Music Makes Me" is also a fine stand alone study of Astaire and the music that moved him so powerfully. "Music Makes Me" deserves to become a standard by which future Astaire studies are judged.