Monday, August 9, 2010

The vehicle

Years ago, in the Classical Hollywood days, there was a thing called a vehicle, which was a film (or a play or whatnot) which existed solely to display the skills, or charisma or what-have-you of the star. It was not meant to be cinema art or social content. It was just: here's a star--like her and you'll like the movie.

Vehicles may be for established stars, although nowadays producers are more likely to get hold of a script, then attract the interest of a star, then get the script rewritten to suit the star. (In the old days, they could write for the star in advance, since she was under term contract and rarely could turn a studio assignment.) And then the most antique item of all, the vehicle created to introduce a new star. Often this was a star from another entertainment medium--the stage, radio, recordings, flea circus, what-have-you. In the 50's New York and London stage sensation Audrey Hepburn was deliberately introduced in Roman Holiday, one of the best vehicles ever created, and inconceivable without her.

But this has been a less reliable process with singers. In the 30s, radio singer Kate Smith was introduced with a film called Hello Everybody! (her catch phrase) so that everyone could get a look at her. They did, and Hello Everybody was Kate Smith's last starring vehicle. Paramount spent a while trying to turn the excellent singer Rosemary Clooney into a movie star, and that didn't catch either. In recent years we have had vehicles for Mariah Carey, Britney Spears (remember--she used to sing, not just parade her corpulent self) and Kelly Clarkson. None of the latter presaged a movie career (although Mariah Carey did a great surprise job of acting in Precious).

But they keep trying. Somebody evidently asked comic and beginning screenwriter Craig Ferguson if we would create such a thing for the Welsh sensation Charlotte Church. He obliged, writing a decent part for himself which would not upstage the ingenue, and named it I'll be there (2003), taking the title from the Four Tops song "Reach Out." There's not a lot to be said about the film. It's a pleasant time-filler with a lot of engineering involved to explain how Glaswegian Ferguson can be father to a girl with a thick Welsh accent. There's a touch of quirky-small-British-town comedy, some funny old-rocker-burnout humor. Ferguson does a pretty professional job, beginning with a well-conceived long tracking shot which literally places Church's singing talent in a church, where it was nurtured. If nothing else, former wildman Ferguson proved that he could be domesticated when necessary, and he has since been rewarded by the showbiz gods. This is not to say I think he's a sellout--at the moment he is wickedly deconstructing the very notion of the late night chat show. It's just that he has demonstrated he knows when to turn the wacky off and on. (Which is a sub-theme of the movie.)

Ms. Church has not launched into a movie career, and she was not robbed. She plays herself pleasantly, and sings very well and without the kind of ridiculous affectation that infect other classical-pop crossovers, like the wobbly-voiced Andrea Bocelli or the stratospheric voiced Anya and her imitators. That's OK.

Everybody famous is not entitled to a movie career.

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