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Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen

by Rachel Levin
September 19, 2003
Los Angeles, CA

Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen

Review by Rachel Levin
September 19, 2003

Almost every young girl who dreams of a life dancing on the stage has at one point imagined herself as Judy Garland's Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Yet, how many of us have actually given much thought to the composer of this musical's remarkable songs?

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to do so, when I attended a screening of Stormy Weather: The Music of Harold Arlen at the Silverlake Film Festival in Los Angeles.

I wasn't initially familiar with Arlen's name, but when I saw in the festival program that he was the composer of musical theatre gems like "Over the Rainbow," "Get Happy," and "It's Only a Paper Moon," I hurried to purchase my ticket.

As both a dancer and a fan of music from Arlen's era, I found the film to be educational as well as extremely satisfying. As I recognized song after song, I was flabbergasted: how could Arlen not be a household name like Rodgers and Hammerstein or Gershwin? The range (and sheer number) of his hit songs is striking, and I'm not sure why I had never made the connection between them before. In addition to his songs for the musicals mentioned above, Arlen also penned jazz classics like "Stormy Weather" (which he wrote for Ethel Waters during his stint as resident composer in Harlem's Cotton Club), "The Man That Got Away," and "Come Rain or Come Shine," as well as popular novelty songs like "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "I've Got the World on a String," and "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day."

The film itself tells Arlen's life story through a combination of dramatization and documentary footage. We meet Arlen as an elderly man (played by Paul Soles) sometime in the 1980s on the night that a documentary of his life is airing on television. His live-in caregiver (Ranee Lee) makes sure that he remembers his medication and retires to her own room, leaving Arlen alone with these images from his life and his thoughts about them. Perhaps because of senility, perhaps because of the medication, or perhaps simply because of a broken heart, Arlen has periodic breaks from reality during this one emotion-filled evening.

Lucky for dancers who are watching this film, most of Arlen's hallucinations are musical numbers! He wanders down the empty hallway of his apartment, opening doors that should be bedrooms or bathrooms, only to find the smoky lounge of the Cotton Club or bejeweled showgirls on a stage-including his deceased wife, Anya Turanda. Though as a film device, these musical diversions ask the audience to suspend perhaps too much disbelief, the performances are delighting in and of themselves. To illustrate Arlen's success during the Great Depression, Hawksley Workman sings "I've Got the World on a String" while controlling the strings of dancing human puppets. Rufus Wainwright gives a vaudeville-inspired rendition of "It's Only a Paper Moon." Little Jimmy Scott looks like he just stepped out of a Frida Kahlo painting as he offers a scratchy, bluesy version of "Over the Rainbow." The real standout performances are Sandra Bernhardt singing "Come Rain or Come Shine" and Debbie Harry doing a knockout job with "Stormy Weather."

Yet the most touching dance images are those in the real-life documentary footage culled from home movies taken by Arlen himself. Arlen captured black and white images of tap dancers at the Cotton Club and his friends Ray Bolger and Burt Lahr (the Scarecrow and the Lion, respectively, from Wizard of Oz) dancing playfully in the backyard of his Hollywood home.

Arlen's true muse for all of this music was his wife, Anya. A beautiful, blond Russian girl ten years his junior, Anya was an actress, dancer, and the face of Brecht shampoo. Arlen was the son of a Jewish cantor, and his parents disapproved of not only his forays into the jazz world of New York, but also to his union with Anya. The couple did find happiness when they moved west to Hollywood, where they married and enjoyed a rich social life with friends like George Gershwin and other elite musicians and actors.

However, it was Anya's ensuing descent into madness that became the centerpiece of Arlen's life. How ironic that while he was struggling for twenty years to bring Anya out of darkness, the songs he wrote had titles like "Get Happy" and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive." The cause of Anya's death will surprise and sadden you, as well as illuminate the truth of Arlen's struggles. When she died, he wrote a song for her, then put down his pen and never wrote again.

The film seems to be making its way around the festival circuit, having won prizes in the Victoria Film Festival (Canada) and the Jerusalem Film Festival (Israel). Watch for it at your local festivals, and, hopefully, it will soon get picked up by a distributor and be available at theaters near you.

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