La Vie en Rose; Show Business: The Road to Broadway

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In the spirit of Edith Piaf's signature song, no, I regret nothing about La Vie en Rose -- not the narrative confusion, not the sketchy details or the music-video editing. Olivier Dahan's impressionistic biopic gives us a brilliant performance by Marion Cotillard as the passionate, tortured Piaf, and Cotillard gives us something new in this genre -- a sense of what the song does to the singer.

The revelation comes early in the time-hopping film, when Piaf stands on stage to sing “Milord”. The passage of time has already taken a terrible toll. She looks empty, spent, a weary soul waiting for the fix that only music can provide. Then the orchestra starts to play, she opens her mouth and a song she’s sung countless times restores her to life as it flows through her.

Flows through her and then out into the auditorium with the intensity of a cyclotron beam; anyone who has known Piaf’s voice can recognize it from a single syllable. The film sees her passion as the product of a wretched, sickly childhood -- abandoned by her alcoholic parents, raised by her grandmother among prostitutes in a brothel. As a young woman she had unerring taste in music and disastrous taste in men. At the age of 44, wracked by illness and addiction, she looked like a harridan. Before turning 48 she was dead.

 La Vie en Rose honors Piaf’s life by refusing to sentimentalize it. The film is long and sometimes harrowing, but it’s also enthralling. And the script declines to bother with such events as World War II, which slips by unnoticed. Maybe this was negligence, but I saw it as a reflection of Piaf’s point of view. Her life was only about singing, and searching for love. And, always, the songs.

 There was a time, believe it or not, when no one outside the movie industry talked about movie budgets. The same goes for Broadway. Theater-goers didn’t know or care how much Death of a Salesman or The Sound of Music cost; they cared about the event. Now everything and everyone on Broadway dances to the sound of money. Producing a show entails insane risk. Yet producers continue to produce, and performers continue to perform, for a variety of reasons that still include love of the living stage.  Dori Berinstein’s fine documentary Show Business: The Road to Broadway evokes this love. The filmmaker clearly stands on the side of artistic aspiration. Yet she’s equally clear about the impediments to success as she tracks four entries in one of Broadway’s recent destructo-derby seasons.

The season is that of 2003-2004. The entries are Taboo, the musical by and about Boy George that Rosie O’Donnell produced at huge personal expense, and with epic backstage turbulence; Avenue Q, a quirky little show with grown-up puppets and a spiritual debt to Sesame Street; Caroline, or Change, the Tony Kushner play with a bravura performance by Tonya Pinkins, and Wicked, a $14 million musical about the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.

 With cameras rolling behind the scenes of all four productions, Show Business tracks the eventual winners and losers. The spectacle can be chilling -- so many pitfalls, plus some pratfalls, plus a ghastly gaggle of theater critics speculating with unseemly glee about which shows will fail or prevail. Along the way, though, the cameras catch gallant theater people doing what they’ve done since Sophocles was a pup: rehearsing, revising, worrying, learning, stretching, struggling to bump things up from good to wonderful and constantly, fervently hoping.