‘The Band Wagon’ or — Singin’ in the Rain directed by Dario Argento?!

There are two unusual pairings in Vincente Minnelli’s ‘The Band Wagon’ (1953) and I can’t figure out which one is the more strange and/or appealing — 1/ Fred Astaire with Cyd Charisse? or 2/ Fred Astaire in Technicolor? Both seem incongruous yet the film exploits these incongruities to the max and the results are frequently mesmerising.

‘The Band Wagon’ is pretty easy to sum up in that it’s a ‘putting on a gang show’ story template with a touch of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ (1952) except this time Comden and Green have written themselves into the movie itself and instead of silent cinema giving way to sound it’s about reviving Fred Astaire’s career. There’s also a touch of Hawks’ ‘Twentieth Century’ (1934) with Jack Buchanan’s Jeffrey Cordova bearing strong similarities to Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffee. So it’s a musical about Broadway, dancing, theatre people and the love of performing. The main problem with it is that that’s just about pretty much it narrative wise.

Do we buy the Charisse and Astaire love story? No, not for a second… but just wait until they start dancing! Do we care if their show gets put on or care if, ultimately, we haven’t a clue what any of it was about in the first place or if we understand what any of it meant? No, but did you notice how beautifully this meaningless is presented? What are we here for and what are we expecting?

So the story is slight, the characters stock and the drama almost inconsequential, if not non-existent and when a musical number occurs it’s jarring seeing Fred in full Technicolor instead of his natural monochrome habitat whilst dancing in a world that is now closer in time to The Beatles than that of Irving Berlin.

Yet, slowly, the film starts to find its feet, or it could be that the audience gradually accepts that narrative tension will not be making an appearance in this story. By the time Astaire and Charisse are dancing in the dark in Central Park we finally feel we’ve been given something to work with and that’s notably the dancing, choreography and the production design. And is it my imagination or does Astaire himself come across as ever so more relaxed as an actor here?

But it’s the production design that’s the real show-stopper as it carefully straddles that delicate and fine line between the totally insane and utterly demented; the film is such a riot of colour that if you watched this directly after one of Astaire’s black and white movies you’d sprain your retinas as a result. Vivid colours dominate everything on screen whether it’s the lighting, the backdrops or especially the costumes. Charisse has some spectacular outfits including a stunning number with green gloves that perfectly matches corresponding and carefully placed green items behind her whilst during the climactic number she makes an appearance in a glittering black dress the splendour of which can only be appreciated in glimmering motion (she looks as though she consists of nothing but the depths of outer space).

Indeed, the final number — ‘Girl Hunt — A Murder Mystery in Jazz’ — has a colour palette and production design that’s so extreme, so chromatically violent that the closest equivalent is Argento’s ‘Suspiria’ (1977) or Bava’s ‘Blood and Black Lace’ 9(1964). In fact, there are many similarities between ‘The Band Wagon’s production design and Argento and Bava’s work (notice the colours, lighting, wallpaper and use of mannequins for starters).

Indeed, all of ‘Girl Hunt — A Mystery in Jazz’ is pretty bonkers and totally nuts. It arrives as though from another planet and simply inserts itself into the rest of the film and proceeds to blind and dazzle us with multicoloured lights to the extent I felt like Roy Neary at the end of ‘Close Encounters’ (1977) starring at the mother ship. Plus you can see Astaire bringing in ‘modern’ elements and pieces into his footwork and stagecraft and there’s that hint, again, of the influence he must’ve had on Fosse.

‘The Band Wagon’ is a truly odd film in that it doesn’t quite satisfy dramatically and occasionally feels like a slight re-tread of ‘Singing in the Rain’ but as an exploration of colour and choreography it’s really something else, and when you’re reaching to comparisons to ‘Suspiria’ in terms of colour then you know you’re really dealing with something particularly nuts.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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