Sunday, September 6, 2015

Lost in the Stars (1974)

          An awkward adaptation of Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Paton’s enduring 1948 novel about South African racial divisions, this production by the American Film Theatre boasts a heartfelt leading performance by the great Brock Peters, as well as strong supporting work by Clifton Davis and Melba Moore. Alas, their performances exist on a plane far above the rest of the movie. Rather than being a straight dramatic rendering of Cry the Beloved Country, this is a filmed version of Lost in the Stars, the 1949 stage musical that Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill based upon Paton’s novel. Beyond the problem of how poorly the musical’s songs have aged, the film is neither a “realistic” musical (with scenarios wherein people would believably sing) nor a sung-through musical. It’s a queasy hybrid, tacking back and forth between dance numbers, straight dramatic scenes, and vocal interludes. Many of the bits work individually, but they don’t cohere.
          Peters stars as Rev. Stephen Kumalo, who leaves his remote village by train and travels to Johannesburg in order to find missing relatives, including his adult son. After reuniting with his brother, John (Raymond St. Jacques), Stephen assumes responsibility for a young relative, Alex (H.B. Barnum III), and the priest also learns that his son, Absalom (Davis), has been in and out of trouble with the law. The story then shifts to Absalom’s perspective. We learn that he’s desperately poor, living in squalor with Irina (Moore), who is pregnant with his child. Together with two accomplices, Absalom attempts a robbery at the home of a wealthy white man, leading to tragedy and more legal trouble. The point of all these narrative machinations is to make a statement about the unfairness of a system that relegates one group of people to poverty simply because of their skin color, and to demonstrate that black individuals are capable of dignity and grace despite being mistreated.
          Lost in the Stars is exactly as heavy-handed and schematic as it sounds. Furthermore, the songs are overwrought and lumbering; the playfulness that Weill brought to his best melodies is completely absent here because of the grim subject matter, and Anderson’s lyrics are full of anguished speechifying and grandiose religious metaphors. Some of the songs, including the title number, resonate somewhat thanks to context and performance, with Peters’ robust baritone a fine instrument for expressing righteous indignation. That said, the score’s occasional “African” flourishes are as bogus as the Oregon locations that the producers used for filming. Ultimately, Lost in the Stars is worthwhile if only for the platform it gives to actors whose visibility in the ’70s was not commensurate with their talent. Nonetheless, pulling this particular show out of mothballs was an odd choice for the sophisticated folks at the American Film Theatre.

Lost in the Stars: FUNKY

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