Music is the Massage

Music is the Massage
Penelope Mesic
Chicago Magazine
July 1988

Stylish, fluid and full of wit, Stormy Monday has got to be the hippest film currently showing. Written and directed by jazz musician Mike Figgis, who also provided the apt, evocative score, the movie is further proof that the best thing that ever happened to British cinema is the emergence - on the screen - of the urban underclass. The flippant, sexy heroes of movies like Wish You Were Here, Mona Lisa, and My Beautiful Laundrette have shown audiences an England that is grimy and battered but curiously free, where the young refuse to be defined by their dead-end jobs but are led by their natures to irreverent nonconformity.

Less strident than these previous films, Figgis's work, a romantic thriller, nevertheless shares their street-wise alertness. The location for Stormy Monday is Newcastle, a gritty, hilly shipbuilding town on the river Tyne, spanned by a high-arching iron bridge. Its curve can seem to hang weightless in air or, as the need for a more sinister atmosphere arises, can look as darkly barred and heavy as an ancient jail. The rock musician Sting, Newcastle-born himself, obviously relishes the opportunity the film provides to use his native accent, and does a fine job in the juicy role of Finney, a sleazy, fox-faced club owner whose basic decency is thickly overlaid with grasping pragmatism. Although his constant cry is "Save your receipts", he has a weakness for musicians, treating even the oddest and least commercially successful with generosity.

Sean Bean's fifties-American good looks - long straight nose, big chin, thick springy wedge of blond hair - could have been modeled on an old "Steve Canyon" cartoon strip, if it weren't for the mildness and humour of his glance. Bean plays Brendan, a young Irishman who answers an ad for a cleaning job at Finney's club. "I said 'cleaning person,'" Finney protests. "If I'd wanted a bloke I'd have said so." Brendan shrugs good-naturedly, saying as he turns to go, "I guess it's 'Farewell Blues.'"

On the strength of this musician reference he's hired, both as a cleaner and as a nursemaid to a wild troupe of newly arrived Poles called the Krakow Jazz Ensemble, who play as if they're possessed and wear clothes than range from thrift-shop overcoats to what may be the iron-curtain version of a sequined Hawaiian shirt.

Detained by an immigration official until Brendan can claim them, the jazz ensemble - unkempt and furtively gesticulating - spy a gleaming white piano in a passenger waiting area. Figgis somehow manages to make this instrument visibly coquettish, a curvaceous platinum blonde of a piano. The group's lecherous glances are followed by a cautious approach. Soon the crowd of silent, far more conventional travelers looks up astonished as plans land to the gently rippling chords of cocktail-hour favorites. The saxophonist stealthily joins the piano player. By the time officials have their papers in order the whole sextet is wailing and banging out discordant arpeggios and manic riffs on guitar. The passengers avert their eyes as if from a public display of lovemaking which, in a way, is exactly what is taking place.

At this moment another traveler - more normal but far less benign - strides through the airport. Tommy Lee Jones plays Cosmo, a drawling American real-estate developer intent on seizing the land that Finney's club occupies. Cosmo's retinue includes a cool, drab female executive, two white-toothed yes men, a pair of hired thugs, and a red-haired American mistress named Kate (Melanie
Griffith) whose reluctant services Cosmo offers to anyone he wishes to influence.

We've been seeing Kate, without being fully aware of who she was, as we have been seeing Brendan, from the film's first moments. Before we know her name, we're given a view of her tossing in fitful sleep. A moment after Brendan wakes, we see her in the shower. The third time we cut to Kate she sits in profile at a glass-topped table. Backlighting gives a sharp edge to the line of her body. Her yellow robe is open; she is naked beneath it, one foot drawn up onto the seat of her chair. As she talks into a cordless phone she first objects to some distasteful proposal, then settles into unhappy acceptance.

Her voice is shy and childishly hesitant. That and her obvious pleasure in her body, her lack of confidence as she speaks, her wistful air of being desirable but desperately alone, all evoke, if not Marilyn Monroe's absolute magnetism, at least the unguarded quality in Monroe that made audiences feel protective.

Seeing shots of Brendan and Kate intercut with one another, teasingly, so at first we wonder if they're sharing an apartment, creates a kind of phantom intimacy. We get an overpowering feeling that they are in sync with one another, each blindly preparing for the fated moment when they will meet. Figgis is a master at casually building to the convergence of events. The sharpness of his images permits us to store them until we have enough information to make sense of them. Throughout the film we find we're recalling small details and recognizing their importance.

Not that the film suffers from oversubtlety. When Kate and Brendan meet, it happens because Kate, leaping off a descending escalator, crashes into him and falls on him full length. Later in the day there's a second encounter. Brendan is checking the Krakow Jazz Ensemble into a gloomy, grand old Victorian hotel, where the musicians behave with the louche, leering glee of the Marx Brothers making themselves at home in Freedonia. Kate comes up a flight of stairs in the background of this scene, turns to ascend another flight to the ballroom where Cosmo is arranging a banquet, and pauses. Recognizing Brendan, she gives a ravishingly happy backward glance over her shoulder. She then joins Cosmo, who humiliates her by making the sexual nature of their relationship a joke in front of his employees. The character of Cosmo is the film's week point. He is an English fantasy of an American villain, all chat and flamboyance and folksy mannerisms reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's, but little to suggest the deadly seriousness that is required to push through massive details.

One of the events connected to Cosmo's stay in Newcastle is, however, only too believable. This is the fatuous America Week being staged citywide, with clam chowder and Michelob on local menus, Dixieland bands and majorettes in the streets, and American disc jockeys crowding the airwaves. Figgis - whose admiration for the best of American life, particularly its music, is reflected throughout the movie - has a ball with this dumb, bland corporate attempt to trade on the icons of American culture. Punk rockers in a shopping mall, their hair spiked and garish, stare nonplused, finding themselves a poor second to Native Americans doing a war dance in paint and feathers. The ultimate irony comes with the Krakow Jazz Ensemble is pressed into substituting for the missing transatlantic Band at Cosmo's good-will banquet for local businessmen. They rip into a "Star-Spangled Banner" so raucous that at its conclusion the stunned diners drop into their chairs as if suffering a collective heart attack.

It is after giving her lecherous dinner partner a vengeful squeeze under the table that Kate flees the banquet and encounters Brendan for a third time. The two wind up in a wonderful quiet bar, dancing to Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long". Brendan leaves her to warn Finney of a threat. When he returns the audience shares his wild elation at seeing Kate waiting faithfully after everyone else has left. The moment is one of perfect happiness, both because the bright little fishbowl of the bar surrounded by darkness is so perfect and complete an image and because the moment contains the promise of an even greater happiness, when Kate will turn and realize that Brendan has returned for her.

It is hard to say what makes the time they spend together so magical. Each pities the weakness of the other in relation to the forces at work around them. They treat each other with extraordinary gentleness, something that emerges more strongly the following day, after a run-in with Cosmo's men leaves them bruised and hobbling.

They take refuge in the hotel room of one of the jazz ensemble musicians, who's out on a spree with a girl he's met in a Polish social club. Kate, her mouth bruised and puffy, bathes Brendan's long white body, washes the blood off his face, sponges the eye that has swollen shut, then helps him to bed. When they wake it is late morning and outside the hotel an America Week parade crashes by,
with brass bands blaring a Dixieland march. Brendan reaches to embrace Kate from behind and she arches sensuously. He tightens his hold and she winces, gasps with pain and then with laughter, and turns toward him. Their love-making is in slow motion, the rhythm of it beating against the frantic drumming of the band outside. The public celebration, the crowds audible on the other side of
the drawn blind, make what they're doing seem all the more private and mysterious.

Ordinarily, writing about a thriller is difficult, because most of the director's ingenuity is devoted to the intricacies of plot, which, if discussed, would give the game away. But Stormy Monday is unusual. While perfectly adequate as a thriller, its chief merit lies not in the suspense of its plot but in Figgis's noticing eye and his effortless, jazz-trained ability to keep separate streams of events flowing and converging, resonating with one another. Casually, he presents us with small treasures, to pick up on or not, as we choose.

It's a pleasure to see a film that repays attention and goes further, offering the director and cinematographer's delight in the industrial city's rough, surprising beauty, in jazz and rhythm and blues, in sex and tenderness and loyalty. There is violence in this film, of a brief but thorough kind. Its power depends not on gruesome visual effects but on Mike Figgis's having made the good things in life seem so fragile, so exposed, so worth having. When, after the film's final botched but lethal act, we hear a high, keening wail, it is appropriate somehow that we cannot immediately tell whether we're hearing the siren of a blue-lit ambulance hurtling into view or the voice of B.B. King breaking open the first bluesy, groaning noises of "Stormy Monday."

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