"If you want the things you love, you must have showers."
Pennies from Heaven was not what people expected when it came out in 1981. It was overlooked then and has continued to be overlooked, which is a shame because this is a gorgeous, wonderfully choreographed little film. Audiences expected a sequel to The Jerk from Steve Martin and instead they got a pretty great bummer of a musical and his dramatic debut. At least, I think it's a musical. Everyone calls it one and it does indeed have song and dance numbers interspersed throughout its narrative, but none of the songs were written for the film and all of the numbers are dream sequences of some sort or another.
All of the songs are from the period in which the film is set, i.e. the 30's, and are lipsynced to by the actors, which is startling at first. Equally startling is the way that the songs are introduced, there are no strings swelling, smiles forming and lights dimming in this film. No traditional song setups. One minute people are speaking and the next a song is being performed. The first song comes out of nowhere within the first five minutes of the film and disappears after just a verse or two. This startling jump sets the tone for the way the rest of the numbers will be introduced. What's interesting about the way that the songs are used throughout the film is that they're not, unlike with most musicals, actually part of the plot. Sometimes they serve as a sidelong inner monologue and on other occasions they fill in the blanks in a conversation. In at least a couple scenes, a conversation is interrupted for a song and then resumes at the exact same spot. Time has not moved forward in the story, but it feels as if the song has embellished upon the scene in some significant way. The songs communicate something that a simple look or line of dialogue can not.
Pennies from Heaven is a pretty bleak film, something that is both startling and wonderful. The cheery songs from the 30's are ironically juxtaposed against a somber depiction of the reality of the era. Many shots in the film are recreations of paintings and photographs from the 30's and the numbers are quite clearly tributes to the Busby Berkely musicals of the time. The film recreates within itself the zeitgeist of the 30's and places it on top of a dark story which stands in stark contrast to it. Steve Martin plays a sheet music salesman who loves his job and the songs he peddles, but naively ignores the fact that business is not going well for him. The songs he sings are the ones he sells and they project a happy attitude that he stubbornly maintains despite the direness of his situation.
Over the course of the film things get worse and worse for its characters, but the music keeps coming. It doesn't overstay its welcome because the irony of the film is not simple enough to rely on the gimmickry of the concept alone. Instead, it feels as if the film becomes a response to the artists that created during that time, a slight reproach. Steve Martin's character is so taken with these songs and films that he begins to believe that they are true and that the logic they operate on is applicable to the world at large. This is of course proven untrue and the film becomes a sort of a reflection of the power of escapist art to take a hold of the naive and destroy them.
I'm going a bit overboard here, because it's pretty clear that the filmmakers loved the songs and musicals of the time and this films is lovingly researched in the way that it references the art of the time. I guess rather than a condemnation of escapism it can be viewed as a look at how powerful of an effect art can have on a person and a reminder of how it can just as easily hurt as it can please. The film isn't an all around success, it has plenty of problems, but I think it's well worth checking out.