Posted by: gdevi | June 27, 2011

Review: Little Voice (1998)

In order to stop D. from watching the Disney produced trash sold in the name of song and dance movies, I have been trying to make her see good song and dance movies to satisfy her craving for such flicks.  Over last year, we watched GreaseBilly Elliot, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Victor Victoria, and we have That Thing You do, and Backbeat in our Netflix queue. Today we watched that wonderful old movie, well, fairly old movie, Little Voice. I saw it years ago when it first came out in the theatres, and remember liking it immensely. I love Michael Caine in anything–there are very few actors who can play the sleazy and decent ends of the dramatic behavior spectrum with such flair and conviction as Caine does; other great actors that immediately come to mind for this particular talent are Albert Finney and Peter O’ Toole.  Ray Say, Caine’s character in Little Voice, the washed-out fifty-something talent agent is probably one of his sleaziest and best performances ever. I think Caine was nominated and won several awards for this performance.  Like all great method actors, we can see how every little detail in Caine’s performance, from his cheap silky shirts with top buttons undone, the cheap gold chain glistening on his chest hair, the polyester suit, the flashy jacket, the ingratiating smile and hungry look show us a bona-fide human character who announces–“watch out for me, I am desperate and if I can use you I will!”

Little Voice is the story of LV, as the title character is called by all, a shy, petite, gamine young woman played perfectly by Jane Horrocks (who also sang all her songs in the movie) who has selective mutism and is agoraphobic. She lives  a petrified life with her mother Mari, played, again as with Caine, in technicolor by Brenda Blethyn, a loud, crude fifty-something woman who works at a fishery by day and cruise bars at night for sex. Blethyn, another great actor, was also nominated and won several awards for her role. “Make way for the woman in lust!” she yells as she goes out of the door after a night of sex with Caine. If it were not for her very human cruelty towards LV, the consistent obscenities she yells at her timid daughter, the dirty house she keeps, her insatiable appetite for money, sex and the night life, she would come across as a caricature, but this movie has a tight and truthful screenplay by Jim Cartright and Mark Herman–these are ugly characters who make their living by preying on others–mother on the child, for instance.

It is a match made in heaven, at least at first, when Ray Say and Mari meet in a dive of a bar in a small industrial town in Northern England.  “What are you staring at,” Mari asks the customers at the restaurant where she eats breakfast–“never had a shag in a chevy”? The plot thickens with Mari bringing Ray to her house where Ray meets LV, the timid daughter.  A true gamine, it is hard to tell how old LV is; Jane Horrocks has an eternally youthful face. She could be a teenager; she could be in her twenties. She spends her days hiding herself from Mari in her upstairs bedroom, rarely interacting with her, spending all her time listening to torch songs and jazz standards from the 40s, 50s, and 60s; this was the music that her father listened to–her father’s music collection. She has a picture of her father on her wall that she sings to; though mute by choice, LV has a gorgeous voice and sings beautifully.

Ray hears LV sing as the young woman tries to drown out the sounds of her mother’s debauchery by singing along with Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. Ray pushes Mari away from his body; LV’s musical potential is far more interesting to him as an agent than her mother’s sexual offers. Mari feels offended, but the two arrive at a pact to turn LV into a commercially viable “act.” This movie has one of the best cinematic uses of “Somewhere over the rainbow” to date; as LV sings the song in her bedroom, we hear the agent and the mother discuss all the ways in which everything they had ever dreamed of will now come true, because as Ray says, we are not sitting on a rainbow, we are sitting on a goldmine. This girl is gonna make us rich. It really makes you wonder if this song is really the theme song about show business; people who know nothing about music profiteering from musicians, for instance.

Horrocks gives one night of wonderful performances of old standards –“think of your dad,” Ray tells her, “he would have wanted you to. His two great loves, this music and you. And now you singing these songs. Think how happy that would make your dad”– Caine’s long “bluebird” speech manipulating the young girl by playing on her love for her father is one of his greatest performances ever I think. Okay, one performance, LV agrees. The show is an incredible success; LV imagines her father in the audience and gives a splendid rendering of song after song after song. An audience member transmits the performances over the phone to the biggest booking agent in the music business in London, thus really perking up Ray and Mari. Everything they are dreaming of is really about to come true!!! But alas, there is no wizard to service the greedy in the moral universe we all live in, which is the same universe that the movie inhabits. The agent and the mother find their plans destroyed.

A young Ewan Mcgregor plays a shy telephone repairman who raises pigeons as a hobby and who strikes up a friendship with LV. In the final apocalyptic ending Billy saves her from the fire and the clutches of the agent and the mother. The movie ends with LV rediscovering her voice loud enough to tell “p*** ff” to Mari;  “You drove my father to an early grave with your drinking and your sex. I did not talk because I could not get a word in.” For a movie with a small star-cast, Little Voice draws you into a richly layered drama through its brilliant screenplay, and unforgettable performances by Caine, Blethyn and Horrocks. Rent it, you will like it.

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