The Netflix Report

Movie reviews from my Netflix queue. Highly personal and opinionated!

Try Netflix for Free!

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Harmonists

Netflix has this listed as The Harmonists instead of its original German name of The Comedian Harmonists. I assume the American distributors didn't want audiences unfamiliar with the group to mistake the movie for a comedy.

The Comedian Harmonists was a real German singing group that was wildly popular for a short time in the late 1920's to early 1930's. They appeared in concerts, radio, and phonograph recordings. Their greatest success was in Germany, but they also had international appeal and traveled to other countries, including America. The group was made up of five singers and a pianist. They sang complex multi-part arrangements of pop songs, jazz, traditional folk tunes, and original novelty pieces. They also threw in a gimmick of vocally imitating musical instruments on some of their numbers.

The movie is a fairly straightforward biopic of the creation, success, and decline of the group. Think Ray or I Walk The Line focusing on an ensemble instead of a single star. There are the usual dramatic subplots of romantic difficulties and entanglements, internal disagreements between the members, and struggles to achieve early success.

What makes this movie different is the fact that the group included several Jewish members and they hit the peak of their popularity coincident with the rise of Nazi Socialism in Germany. This creates dramatic conflicts far greater than you'll see on an episode of VH1's Behind The Music.

The film is primarily carried by its extensive use of actual recordings of the group's music. The old hissy recordings have been digitally cleaned and enhanced to provide remarkably clear audio quality. You are never taken out of the movie by a sudden change in audio dynamics as the group starts singing. It is a bravura feat of sound editing. Add to that the fact that the music is still catchy and involving after all these years. It's the kind of thing where many modern viewers will be surprised and spurred to buy a CD of the group's work.

The look of the film is very pretty. 1920's/1930's Germany is reproduced with bright colors and vibrancy. Enough so that at times I felt it was a little too "sound stage." But the cars, the buildings, the costumes, the hairstyles, and the music halls are represented so lovingly that it simply feels fun to enter into that world.

Even when the Nazi party starts to emerge as a presence throughout the country (first in the background and later as an omnipresent symbol in all facets of life), the filmmakers keep up the vibrancy and aesthetic appeal of the mise en scene. There is no sudden symbolic darkening of the color palette or dark clouds to foreshadow and underscore the horrors that will follow.

The actors are fun to watch. The central character, Harry, who comes up with the concept for the group he wants to form is played by Ulrich Noethen. He reminded me a little bit of a young Jack Gilford. Frizzy haired, often with a wry smile and a ready joke, he nevertheless has a serious side and a deeper understanding of the emotional depth of the troubles around him than people give him credit for.

He is paired up with a tall, good looking, confident blond haired, blue eyed Aryan named Robert (Ben Becker). If you are of a certain age, it is impossible to look at Becker without being reminded of a young Michael McKean on Laverne and Shirley. The two characters have the closest and most tempestuous relationship as the earliest members of the team (and for other reasons that are revealed later).

The remaining members of the group are more or less developed as individual characters. They all have their own little mini-dramas and personal stories, but the only one that really stands out is fun loving ladies' man Ari, played by Max Tidof.

I enjoyed the film. It pleases the ear and the eye, while providing the right amount of humor, drama, and historical background. Naturally this kind of story has its predictable elements, but they are played out with a commitment to the melodrama from everyone involved. I also felt at times that the actors didn't do a very convincing job of lip synching when singing some of the strange sounds that the original group would come up with. But that's just nit-picking.

Recommended in both film and soundtrack versions.

Parents: The only areas of concern are references to "ladies of easy virtue" (the group rehearses at a friendly bordello), and some brief flashes of female breasts. And everybody smokes constantly.

The dialog is in German with English subtitles. The titles are clear and readable, but there is a font error that makes the letter u with an umlaut show up as an N with a tilde. Very strange. The DVD contains no special features.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home