Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Glenn Miller Story

I'm a huge fan of the five dark, morally tortured westerns that director Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart in the fifties: Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend Of The River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man From Laramie (1955).

They are everything we expect a western NOT to be: anti-heroic, claustrophobic, and with no sure sense of good and evil.

But in between those five films, Mann made The Glenn Miller Story (1953), a biopic that mirrors many qualities of Miller’s music. It is pleasant, sometimes soothing, sometimes bland, and always inoffensive.

Jimmy Stewart plays Glenn Miller, the most popular white bandleader of the swing era. In the late thirties, Miller discovered that by having a clarinet play the melody line, with a saxophone doubling that melody one octave below, an unusually sweet sound resulted. It was an arranging innovation that proved influential on other white jazz big bands of the time.

The film itself traces smoothly if simplistically Miller's short career until his plane vanished during the war in 1944. There are cutesy little stories here to illustrate the origins of various Glenn Miller hits like "Moonlight Serenade", "String Of Pearls" and "Pennsylvania 6-5000". And Jimmy Stewart gives a marvelous, commanding performance.

But yet the sourpuss in me, while watching this big-budget widescreen bonbon, couldn't help thinking of other jazz bandleaders -- a dozen times more innovative, far superior musical visionaries -- who were never destined to achieve this kind of Hollywood immortality.

Specifically, the greatest of them all: the not-white Duke Ellington.