In 1981, Steve Martin tried to drastically change his image and Herbert Ross tried to reinvent the musical for a new sensibility. The film was Pennies from Heaven, and it was a box-office flop. A few critics sang its praises, including Pauline Kael, but by and large it was dismissed. Newly released on DVD, this brilliant movie that was so far ahead of its time can perhaps finally find an audience.
British television writer and novelist Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) had a long, successful career starting in the 1960s, and one of his biggest accomplishments was the 1978 BBC miniseries Pennies from Heaven, starring Bob Hoskins (also now available on DVD). It tells the story of a sheet-music salesman in 1930s Britain who dreams of living out the lyrics of the songs he peddles. This rich fantasy life is contrasted sharply with the darkness of his real life. Potter pared down and adapted his own eight-hour teleplay into a film screenplay, shifting the setting to Depression-era Chicago, which caught the attention of Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl). Steve Martin, fresh from mega success as a stand-up comic playing to rock-and-roll-size crowds and distilling that wild and crazy persona into The Jerk (1979), signed on to play the dark and complicated lead. Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria) would co-star, with Christopher Walken in film-stealing support.
Pennies from Heaven is the musical as psychotic episode. The numbers, often elaborate set pieces of which Busby Berkeley would have been proud, are delusions that have zero to do with reality. Martin's Arthur is a bizarre and almost irredeemably amoral man who creates a pretend morality in the music he loves and envisions. He claims to be a pure romantic dreamer, but his selfish and hurtful actions tell otherwise. It's a brilliant concept, and works even better as a movie than as a TV project (though make no mistake, the BBC version is also spectacular). Many of the film's references are to the otherworlds created by cinema, worlds that millions flocked to during the Depression in order to delude themselves into a fantasy for part of an evening. As Fred Astaire was floating across screens in top hat and tails, most of the audience was wondering if they could find steady work. So in one of Heaven's best sequences when Martin and Peters actually enter Follow the Fleet, the circle is complete and Arthur's fantasy blends with the larger fantasy. The look of the film is fantastic, with two basic palettes: the glitz of Hollywood and the dim of Edward Hopper (several of his paintings are brought to life, including Nighthawks).
Dark and ironic eye-candy, this is Herbert Ross' masterpiece, waiting to be rediscovered.