Some things are just better outdoors: burgers, beer, and baseball, for example. And, as Walker Art Center has been proving for more than three decades, so too are great tunes and vintage movies in a grand old city park.
Last night, the Walker’s beloved Summer Music & Movies series opened its thirty-first season in Loring Park with mild weather, a sultry performance by buzzed-about local band Black Blondie, and a screening of the 1955 hothouse melodrama All That Heaven Allows. Sure, you could watch the Criterion Collection DVD comfortably at home on one of those gigantic home theater systems that are slowly destroying what’s left of our communal moviegoing experience—but why would you want to?
For starters, you would have missed Black Blondie, which played its moody blend of hip-hop, trip-hop, soul, rap, and jazz to the huge crowd that filled the east side of the park with ad-hoc picnic spreads, dogs, babies, and a few illegal substances. The shuffleboard and pick-up basketball games continued on the courts nearby as vocalist Samahra Linton took the stage with Liz Draper on upright bass and electric bass, Tasha Baron on keyboards, and Kahlil Brewington on drums. Absent was co-vocalist Sarah White, who recently announced she’s leaving the band to pursue a solo career in New York. Linton, who seems a little raw as lone frontwoman, made an oblique reference to the reconfiguration, deeming a new song “sacred” because the four of them wrote it together.
Sexy and provocative, Black Blondie’s performance was an amusing counterpoint to last night’s movie. All That Heaven Allows is a buttoned-up Douglas Sirk–directed melodrama that follows a small-town widow (a startled-looking Jane Wyman) who falls in love with a strapping young gardener several years her junior. Rock Hudson plays the Thoreau-reading hunk, instantly identified as salt-of-the-earth by his flannel shirts and corduroys and his melting-pot group of friends. The mismatched couple’s cut-to-chase (but decidedly chaste) romance-turned-marriage-proposal quickly sparks uproar among Wyman’s stuffy country club friends and her bratty college-age kids who are appalled by her paramour’s age and working-class pedigree. “All you see is a good-looking set of muscles,” her son snips.
Aided by his signature stylized lighting, set design, and camerawork, Sirk amps up the over-the-top music and finds resonance in the wooden (but amusedly prescient) dialogue, as when Hudson explains how he convinced a war buddy to turn his life around. He taught his friend to not be afraid, he says, to be a man. “So you want me to be a man?” Wyman asks. “Only in that one way,” Hudson replies in an irony-laced line that drew some knowing hoots from the crowd.
In their day, Sirk’s films were dismissed as simplistic and overwrought, weepies aimed at women, and certainly not pictures to be dissected as they are today by Sirk acolytes such as director Todd Haynes. Haynes remade All That Heaven Allows in 2002 as Far From Heaven, casting Julianne Moore in Wyman’s role, but as a woman in love with her black gardener and married to a closeted gay man. His was a respectful homage, recognition of the real substance buried in those preachy old scripts.
And they are certainly preachy. When the original All That Heaven Allows was first released, a critic for Time magazine compared the experience of watching it to “drowning in a sea of melted butter, with nothing to hang on to but the clichés that float past.” From the sounds of it, even Sirk himself was none too pleased with the quality of stories he was often asked to adapt in his prolific ten-year stint with Universal Pictures. But he made smart aesthetic choices that illuminated his protagonists’ tormented psyches and the suffocating rigidity of the times. He finds that balance in All That Heaven Allows, a film that works on multiple levels: as an unintentionally hilarious relic of a moviemaking era long past, as a quietly subversive work of an overlooked director, and as an immensely entertaining diversion for a long summer night.
For more Sirkian melodrama and great music, check out the remaining installments in the Summer Music & Movies series: The Plastic Constellations and There’s Always Tomorrow (July 23), The Knotwells and The Tarnished Angels (July 30), Metronomy and Written on the Wind (August 6), Robert Skoro and Imitation of Life (August 13), and Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective and Magnificent Obsession (August 30).