At Long Last Love (1975) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

At Long Last Love (1975)

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Director Peter Bogdonavich's almost forgotten musical At Long Last Love is a film that's more keenly remembered for its behind-the-scenes drama, unceasing critical drubbing, and theatrical flop status than for any other aspects. The film was so roundly panned that it elicited an apology from Bogdonovich and has spent over three and a half decades sitting on the shelf, only to recently earn an unexpected reprieve on Netflix Instant.

Whether this new availability will do anything to redeem this film's reputation is probably a futile question: 35 years is a long time ago, leaving this film to only the unwary and the snobs already familiar with its reputation. This is a film where being unwary would be a great disadvantage.

The technical details in At Long Last Love are half of the reason for its infamy. Normally, when making a musical, the filmmakers record the songs beforehand so that they can tweak the performances and allow the performers to focus on their choreography. Gene Kelly? Fred Astaire? Great singers, better lip syncers.

Bogdanovich decided to upend that tradition, and you're instead given performers that are singing as they go along. This creates a noticeable bevy of problems, ranging from overtaxing a quintet of actors to choreography that's less than memorable. Since some of these actors-- who include Burt Reynolds, Cybil Shepherd, Madeline Khan, Dulio Del Prete, and John Hillerman-- are good to passable in a regular film, but nowhere near that range in terms of singing ability.

In fact, rating the singing on a scale from 'painful' to 'augh my ears oh god why' is a pretty fair range.

Without a doubt, Bogdanovich was trying to mix the glitz of the 30's musical (think Swing Time) with something more naturalistic. It's the same thing he did with It's Only a Paper Moon or The Last Picture Show, though far too many people regard those films as simple carbon copies and not what they are-- translations from an old genre into a new era.

Recreating an old genre is easy, updating it is hard. At Long Last Love is our case in point.

Take the film's look. This film is an idea of the 1930's no one's seen outside of the movies, insomuch as it's looking at a film. Outside of the main character's hair and natural colors that permeate the world, everything is white, black, grey and possibly cream. The film abhors color from non-natural sources, so much so that I'm sure Bogdonavich would have made the grass a checkered black and white if he felt he could have gotten away with it.

These are purposefully there to evoke the black and white films of Busby Berkeley and his ilk, but not recreate it-- nothing of Berkeley's overblown sense of the grandiose comes through.  For all of this care and detail that he put in, it's easy to get the feeling that At Long Last Love is desperately trying to be fun. You can see it in their eyes, you can see it in their big toothy smiles, they're pretending to be happy and hoping that you won't notice and just play along.

Reynolds and Shepherd are the most egregious offenders here. Watching their desperate banter in the pool is just depressing.

And that's the real tragedy of the film. As something that tries to be bubbly and joyous-- a Howard Hawks movie on speed-- it's a trudge.  The Cole Porter tunes are delivered with a greater sense of duty than pleasure, and the film mimics an almost oppressive march through his oeuvre. He's a beloved lyricist and composer, but I'm not much of a fan-- it's always music that always sounds a beat off to me, or maybe a lyric wrong. And hearing songs I dislike performed poorly pushed this one pretty far over the edge for me.

There's a long, detailed series of reviews over at the excellent review site A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity, and each writer there has a different take on the film's ending. I find their debate interesting but inconsequential; though the music box motif of the film is an interesting way to decipher how Bogdonovich regards his characters, the rest of the film speaks for itself in many ways prior to that. The veneer of artifice hangs heavy here, represented by the double lives the characters lead and the naturalistic ways they sing; this isn't idealism, but a twisted, sadder riff on the undeniable sadness of that world that even Porter couldn't keep away.

At Long Last Love, when it comes down to it, is not a terrible film, just a frustrating one. Bogdonovich still had some good movies inside of him (notably the great They All Laughed) and a few more awful than this coming soon. His ambitions grew too large. That's never a bad thing, it just helps a lot if you can follow through.

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Posted by Danny

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