B-Sides is a weekly feature where we look at an element of contemporary culture that isn't necessarily related to our indie pop/rock music scene. And this week we're talking about Singin' in the Rain and New York City's newest indie movie theater, Metrograph.
Sunday of last week marked the one year anniversary of my moving to New York City to become the new Managing Editor of Baeble Music. And when I moved to the city, I had one real desire beyond trying to be the best I could possible be at my new job: I wanted to finally see movies in the theatre that I'd never have the chance to see back home. And that's one of the beautiful things about NYC. IFC, Film Forum, Lincoln Center, Nitehawk, BAM...the options are damn near endless for foreign, independent, and vintage cinema in the city, and now there's another option for your non-commercial cinema needs: Metrograph NYC.
I've been privy to some truly sublime cinema-going experiences here in New York in the last year. I saw Akira Kurosawa's Ran and Jean-Pierre Melville's The Army of Shadows at Film Forum. I've been to countless midnight showings at IFC including The Big Lebowski, Let the Right One In, El Topo, and more. But I'm not sure if anything can live up to the experience I had watching Singin' in the Rain at the new Metrograph on Ludlow St. in Manhattan.
The new Lower East Side establishment is a hotbed of vintage, indie, and foreign cinema. Some films on the current docket include a 35mm print of Academy Award nominee Carol, a print of unsung Scorsese classic The Age of Innocence (which I'll be seeing tonight), and next month, they're doing a kung fu retrospective including the seminal Bruce Lee film, Enter the Dragon. If, like me, you already had enough trouble deciding what movies you wanted to catch on any given weekend, Metrograph has added to the glut of choices with a carefully curated selection.
And early Saturday afternoon, I made my way up to the Lower East Side theatre to see if the venue itself could live up to the films it was showing. And at first glance, I was a little taken aback. I wasn't sure which building was the theatre cause there was no external marquee and the building that houses the theater looks quite a bit like a warehouse. But those concerns were brushed aside once I entered the building and sat in the gorgeous, old Hollywood style screening room (though the theater's ultra-fancy choices in both popcorn and soda made me wish that I could just buy a coke and regular, freshly popped popcorn).
But, of course, no theatre is worth its space if it isn't showing great films, and Saturday's screening of the 1952 Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly classic was one of the most magical moviegoing experiences I've had in my entire life and it was a powerful reminder of the inherent pleasures of the theatre experience when the film is right.
Singin' in the Rain is arguably the peak of the classic Hollywood approach to filmmaking. A major studio production starring one of the most popular actors of that time stuffed to the gills with songs from other musicals. That latter bit is a fact a lot of people don't remember. The only original songs are "Moses Supposes" and "Make 'Em Laugh" (but the latter is dangerously close to being a rip-off of a Cole Porter tune). Of course, when the songs that got reworked and re-appropriated to Singin' in the Rain are so good, it's easy to forgive it for the fact that it has such a small amount of original musical material.
A love letter to the early years of Hollywood and a satire of the rough transition studios faced when transitioning from silent films to "talkies," Singin' in the Rain is breakneck comedy, classic Hollywood romance, and the best song & dance show American cinema ever produced. Gene Kelly is rivaled only by Fred Astaire as the best hoofer Hollywood ever produced, but Singin' in the Rain works so well because at each turn, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Cyd Charisse are there and on the verge of showing him up (and, for my money, the film's best musical number is Donald O'Connor's riotously funny song/stunt routine "Make 'Em Laugh").
Singin' in the Rain was metatextual before that was a thing in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. It plays with formal conventions by segueing in & out of the past and present, reality and fantasy, "real life" and the movie's films within the films. There's the famous "Broadway Melody Ballet" where the film's narrative comes to a complete stop for nearly 15 minutes so that Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse can put on a show-stopping dance routine stuffed to the gills with lavish set design and a ton of extras for a number that may or may not make into The Dancing Cavalier. Much like the old Charlie Chaplin films like Modern Times or City Lights, Singin' in the Rain doesn't get nearly enough credit today for how ambitious, surrealist, and fantastical it was willing to be.
Of course, I've seen Singin' in the Rain half a dozen times over the years. I knew how special of a film it was going in, but nothing could have prepared me for what it was like watching it on the big screen with a full audience. A goofy smile never left my face from the moment the opening credits came on with Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds singing an abbreviated version of the title track. The audience broke into applause after nearly every song. Laughter filled the screening room at all the right moments. Nobody was chatting with their friends (which is a major, major problem even at the indie theaters in this city). Nobody was on their phone. A whole room of people were lost in the majesty of one of the greatest American films ever made.
And when I filed out of the theater after the film was over, I was walking through the Lower East Side with a slight skip in my step. I wasn't quite Gene Kelly, sashaying through a rainy street, singing about romance and desire, but I was close. And if you leave a movie and, afterward, you're nearly dancing in the streets, it's safe to say that it's done it's job. I hope to have many more experiences like this at Metrograph in the months to come.