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From the DVD Shelf: Cradle Will Rock (1999)

Last week I wrote about the disappointingly mediocre Me and Orson Welles, and I commented that the film covered familiar ground as Cradle Will Rock, the 1999 film written and directed by Tim Robbins.  After writing that blog post, I realized that it had been years since I’d last seen Cradle Will Rock, and I was in the mood to give it another viewing.

Set in 1937, Cradle Will Rock focuses on the tumultuous production of the musical written by Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), directed by Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and funded by the Federal Theatre Project, a division of the depression-era Work Progress Administration that helped bring theatre to millions of people nation-wide.  The play Cradle Will Rock depicted the struggles of working-class union members, and as such was seen as extremely controversial by some.  But the sprawling story of Tim Robbins’ film covers far more than just the production of that one play.  It also tells the story of the artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades)’s creation of an enormous mural for Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) that was destroyed when Mr. Rockefeller disapproved of the left-leaning imagery of the mural.  We also see an elderly ventriloquist’s struggles in the face of the demise of vaudeville, the House Un-American Activities Commission’s assault on the Federal Theatre Project, and more.  Through all these stories, Cradle Will Rock tells the stories of artists struggling in the face of economic depression, and the collision between art and politics.

Mr. Robbins has assembled an incredible, enormous ensemble for his film.  Each one of these characters could be the headliner in a film focusing solely on them.  (If I have any criticism about Cradle Will Rock, it’s that it might have been nice to have spent some more time with some of these characters, had the film had a narrower focus.  But they’re each so good, and their characters’ stories so interesting, that I can’t really complain.)

When the film opens, we meet Olive (Emily Watson), a beautiful young singer who has been forced to sleep in movie theatres because she is broke and homeless.  She eventually finds work as a stagehand in Orson Welles’ production of Cradle Will Rock. Mr. Welles is portrayed by Angus Macfadyen.  It’s a much broader, comical portrayal that that of Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles, and watching these two films in such short succession I found that I preferred Mr. McKay’s portrayal.  But that’s no knock against Mr. Macfadyen, who is still one of the best things about Cradle Will Rock. He is a hoot as Orson, loud and vivacious and argumentative and brilliant.  It’s a really fun performance to watch.  He bounces beautifully … [continued]