Sometimes it’s the small moments.
As in life, in a movie one little thing can have the power to send you into a bittersweet reverie of love lost, or fill your heart with enigmatic emotions. For me, it usually involves music.
There are too many music-in-movie moments throughout the history of cinema to discuss here, but often, even during the shortest bursts of soundtrack — shorter than say, Harold waiting for the fate of Maude and driving his car towards that cliff to the entire tune of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” (one of the most heart-achingly beautiful and brilliantly edited mergings of song and image) — if set properly, I can get chills just watching a few moments of a musical interlude.
Last year, it occurred in Davis Guggenheim’s documentary “It Might Get Loud,” when Jimmy Page air-guitared to his own old 45 of Link Wray’s “Rumble.” How disarming, touching, oddly life-affirming it was to watch a master air-strum to the thick, evil, inspirational power chords of that other master, Wray, with the beaming smile of a little boy and a lifelong fan. Perfection.
This year (and it’s early yet), it happened in “The Book of Eli” in which directors Albert and Allen Hughes make the inspired decision to meld Denzel Washington with Al Green.
Of course, Al Green is easy. Easy in the way that you can’t insert an Al Green song in a movie and not make me feel something. You can’t play an Al Green song in a car without making me look at the world differently. So introducing Washington, after trudging through post-apocalyptic desolation, covered in scarves and layers and grime and dust, and then unwrapping all of this coating to reveal an older face, a scarred body and a mysterious, sadder demeanor, to the tune of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (written by the Gibb brothers — nice touch, Hughes brothers) was one of the most poignant movie moments I’ve seen this year (and I repeat, it’s early yet).
And then there’s the fact that Washington puts the song on himself, taking refuge in a bombed-out house, then grabbing his battered MP3 player with a dying battery to escape the world’s ugliness to the lyrics (and please, hear Green’s soulfully introspective falsetto as you read this): “I can think of younger days, when living for my life was everything a man could want to do. I could never see tomorrow, but I was never told about the sorrow.” Washington choosing that song makes it more affecting. Thank god he chose that song. And, of course he chose that song. This is what Denzel Washington would listen to. He’s not a young man. He’s a man. Further, he’s a god-damn man. And a movie star. He’s a dying breed.
As is the expressive resonance of Al Green. Now, if only the directors had allowed that song to play throughout the entire scene. And if only another Green tune closed the picture. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Choosing a singer who still resides as reverend at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, TN works a dual purpose in that “The Book of Eli” is about The Book, as in the Good Book — the Bible, the book that Washington’s mysterious wanderer Eli has held in his possession, spending 30 years of his life braving a dangerous scorched landscape to protect the text. People want it. Why? Because the words written in that leatherette edition you pass over in your hotel bedside drawer are also contained in Eli’s much-loved locked copy, the only one left in the world.
Before you go “Oh, no! The Hughes brothers (who haven’t made a feature film in nine years, since 2001’s “From Hell”) are getting all Jesus-y Christ-y, Tyler Perry’s Post-Apocalyptic Family Reunion, Kirk Cameron Explains The End Times on us!” — they’re not. Not in the preachy way you might imagine. Not that this would matter — if it works, it works (see “The Passion of the Christ” and leave me alone about it).
With some major nods to “A Boy and His Dog,” “Mad Max,” spaghetti westerns, samurai pictures, the Zatoichi series, “Fahrenheit 451” and even “Deadwood,” the potentially exceptional story (scripted by Gary Whitta) — though not developed to the extent that it could have, and weirdly, not as outlandish as it should have been — finds Eli up against a vicious dictator, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who rules one of the few semi-working devastated towns. Carnegie holds power because, like Eli, he can actually read (part of world decimation has meant that most of the population is now illiterate) and, on top of this talent, he enjoys his books. He frequently dispatches his goons to gather him reading material, which he peruses with relish. (He’s reading a biography on Mussolini upon introduction, which seemed a bit on the nose. Why not Ayn Rand or Céline or Nicholas Sparks?)