Screens Armchair Cinephile

Shall we dance?

The big news of the week for all sorts of constituencies - fans of Hollywood's golden era, comedy buffs, dance lovers, et cetera - is The Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1, yet another splendid reissue project from Warner Bros. As has become routine with these Warner sets, a bargain price (under $9 per disc if you catch a good sale) is in no way reflective of the DVDs' production or content. Sharp-looking packaging featuring vintage poster art, sparkling audio and video, informative commentaries, and an array of musical shorts, cartoons, and the like make these a tempting purchase for any movie buff.

As for the movies themselves, they vary quite a bit in quality. As comedies, they don't all rank with the best of the era (these five titles hail mostly from the '30s, with one from 1949); some, like Swing Time, lack the timeless crackle of the screwball era. On the other hand, Swing Time earns its timelessness with songs - "The Way You Look Tonight" in this case - and others boast amazing physical feats, such as the tap-dance-on-roller-skates (!) routine in Shall We Dance. All the features, of course (the others are Follow the Fleet, The Barkleys of Broadway, and the top-notch Top Hat ), star the most beloved dancing team ever to hit the big screen.

Warner carries the musical theme in odd directions this month. From the recent past they pull The Mambo Kings; digging into the vault they find Jamboree, a performance film starring Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and many more. The only release that could make the selection more diverse would be ABBA: The Movie, which was planned for this batch of releases but then delayed.

Music is much of what's memorable about another new release, if not entirely in the way it was first intended. The first season of The Muppet Show (Buena Vista) featured weekly guest stars who decades later are decidedly not the main attraction. Come on, who wants to hear Sandy Duncan or Avery Schreiber? (On the other hand, cool French crooner Charles Aznavour pops up on one show.) The show's enduring appeal, though, is the lovably oddball music made by the felt-covered main cast.

Late summer has brought the release of the usual specialty titles that will be most at home in record stores. The latest include: Permanent Record (Rhino), which pairs a 1991 Violent Femmes concert with a half-dozen or so of the group's videos; Bodysong (Eclectic), a Powaqqatsi-type effort that takes on the entirety of human existence, from conception and birth through religion and war, and sets it to music by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood; and Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists (Snapper), a doc that in two-and-a-half hours combines vintage performances and new interviews to tell the folk legend's story.

Music flows through Lackawanna Blues, the HBO adaptation of Ruben Santiago-Hudson's autobiographical play, from front-porch guitar laments to a jump 'n' jive sequence starring Mos Def. Ingratiating and stagey, it's no great shakes as a piece of filmmaking, but a fine showcase for a superb ensemble that includes S. Epatha Merkerson, Jeffrey Wright, and up-and-comer Terence Howard.

Back to conventional musicals, Universal uses the arrival of John Waters' outlandishly filthy A Dirty Shame (New Line) to put out a Director's Cut of his somewhat less scandalous rock comedy Cry-Baby, starring Johnny Depp. (Less scandalous, that is, for those unfamiliar with co-star Traci Lords' early career.)

But back to the golden age of movies. Kino Video does its part to cement the legend - or, just as important, to let those who've heard the legend see it for themselves - with The Josephine Baker Collection, three features that star the toast of the Folies-Bergére. Her 1927 debut, Siren of the Tropics, sets the gutter-to-glitter template for Baker's screen life; 1934's Zou Zou (which the company re-released theatrically in 1989) is a lavish backstage musical co-starring Jean Gabin; and Princess Tam Tam (1935) has Baker ascending to French high society from her origins as a Tunisian shepherd girl.

These Baker films, which are the kind of semi-biographical myth-making that continues with today's pop stars, bear little resemblance to the pure fantasy of the Astaire/Rogers films that bathed Depression audiences in escapist glitz. But like those movies and the best musicals, they use any excuse available to showcase performers whose appeal survives after cinematic fashion has moved on.

John DeFore on DVD

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