Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer From the Top

By Chris Herrington

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  Over the past decade, few directors have had as much to say about the way people live now than Mike Leigh. With Life Is Sweet (1991), Secrets & Lies (1996), Career Girls (1998), and, most of all, the harrowing Naked (1993), Leigh has made absorbing, intelligent cinema and clung fiercely to the milieu of contemporary, English working-class life. So there are few directors who would be less likely to indulge in a period piece, a costume drama. But here it is: Leigh's latest, Topsy-Turvy, is set in the late 19th century and is even a bio-pic of sorts, about, of all things, Gilbert and Sullivan — a theatrical partnership of seemingly little relevance today. And it's Leigh's best film since Naked.

I'll confess that I knew very little about William Gilbert or Arthur Sullivan before I saw the film, but that sort of prior knowledge (unlike for the roughly similar Shakespeare in Love) isn't at all important. Topsy-Turvy is not a straight bio-pic, where the viewer inevitably suffers through the peaks and valleys of career narrative in episodic fashion, with reams of exposition to wade through. Rather, Topsy-Turvy takes an in-depth look at a particular moment in the careers of its two primary subjects: a brief partnership crisis that is resolved by the creation and production of the Japanese-inspired operetta The Mikado. Topsy-Turvy is essentially an examination of and tribute to the collective creation of art. In this way the film very much makes sense as a Mike Leigh project and is, in fact, as personal a film as the man has ever made.

Leigh is famous for his workshop approach to filmmaking. The director begins his films without a script — just a rough outline. The entire cast — through months of research, improvisation, and rehearsal — generates the final shooting script. Leigh's own organic method then, mirrors the collective creation that is shown onscreen. Rather than chalk the work of Gilbert and Sullivan up to the individual "genius" of two creators, Topsy-Turvy gets deep into the sinews of theatrical production — the personal, economic, organizational, cultural, and artistic factors that go into putting on a show.

A backstage comedy-drama-musical in the best sense, the remarkably well-researched Topsy-Turvy gives ample time to the extraordinary number of people involved in the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan's work: actors, musicians, directors, conductors, the owners and managers of the Savoy Theatre (built expressly for Gilbert and Sullivan), stagehands, loved ones, and companions. It's a film that takes the viewer into accounting ledgers, choreography sessions, costume designs, tense business meetings, hiring and casting decisions, and best of all, long rehearsal scenes that are the heart of the film (and of Leigh's process). Significantly, Topsy-Turvy makes no lofty claims for the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, but rather concerns itself with the intricacies of the creative process. In essence, this is a profound work of art about the creation of a trivial one.

As a film about actors and acting, Topsy-Turvy ranks with Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be, and as an ethnography of the kind of collective struggle that goes into producing theater or cinema, it's the best film of its kind since François Truffaut's Day for Night, only better. In terms of honesty and realism, it completely shames the Oscar-validated likes of Amadeus and Shakespeare in Love.

One of the most novel, and ultimately one of the most important, aspects of Topsy-Turvy is how the structure of the film mirrors the structure of Leigh's own creative process. Leigh's workshop participants spend months preparing before a single piece of film is shot — so that by the time the cameras begin rolling, the characters are fully inhabited creations. Likewise, Topsy-Turvy has a deceptively leisurely pace: The heart of the film — the creation of The Mikado — doesn't begin until about two-thirds of the way into the almost three-hour film. But by the time the film hits its stride, we know the characters so well that every nuance means just that much more. And I can't remember the last time so many dead-on performances were packed into one film, from Jim Broadbent as the writer Gilbert and Allan Corduner as the composer Sullivan on down the line.

For the film's brave, inspired ending, Leigh does away with Gilbert and Sullivan, and instead completely hands Topsy-Turvy over to three women who had been minor characters before — Gilbert's wife, speaking of the theater and of her own, ordinary life; Sullivan's mistress, announcing a pregnancy and contemplating an abortion; and the actress Leonora, speaking to herself in the dressing room mirror. This daring three-part finale reveals reservoirs of feeling and experience beyond even the film's sprawling and deep surface. The scene with Gilbert's wife, in particular, inspires the radical notion that there are entire other films that exist beneath the great one we've just seen.

It is only February, I realize, but if more than a couple of films as good as Topsy-Turvy open the rest of the year, I'll be shocked.

Liberty Heights finds director Barry Levinson returning to his beloved Baltimore after a decade-long absence. Throughout his career, Levinson has made "personal" films set in his hometown — Avalon (1990), Tin Men (1987), and his first and still best film, Diner (1982) — in between more lucrative and more anonymous director-for-hire projects such as Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam. But Levinson's take on the city might not be recognizable to those more acclimated with the work of Baltimore's other well-known cinematic chronicler, John Waters; Levinson's films tend to celebrate the middle-class normalcy that Waters skewers.

Liberty Heights is a hard-sell nostalgia flick where period is established by a string of shiny vintage cars (no beaters in Baltimore?) and well-chosen R&B and doo-wop songs, memories are made, Important Lessons are learned, and predictable voice-over homilies sum things up for viewers who may have cat-napped ("Life is made of a few big moments and a lot of little ones"). This end-of-an-era essay seeks to do for race what Diner did for sexual politics — document a cultural moment when the rules of engagement were being discarded. Liberty Heights may, in the end, be more progressive than Diner, which ultimately sided with boys-only camaraderie despite so expertly exposing the arrested development at the heart of its characters' late-night bull sessions. But Levinson's latest mid-century memory piece can't match the personality and good humor of his first.

A coming-of-age story about two teenage brothers in predominantly Jewish northwest Baltimore, Liberty Heights is set in 1954, one of the most iconic years in American history. It was the year that the Brown vs. Board of Education decision dictated from on high a radical cultural shift, while emerging musical miscegenation was making it a reality from the bottom up. Liberty Heights is about a moment when kids from different ethnic and social classes—blacks, Jews, and WASPs—began to interact on more equal terms. But this story is old hat by now, and Liberty Heights doesn't add anything new to the genre.

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