Review: The ISO’s ‘An American in Paris’

Yes, I know it was the 1951 Academy Award winner for Best Picture and, yes, I know that it stretched the boundaries of cinematic musicals. I know that it’s got a glorious set of Gershwin songs and I know that it’s adorned by film buffs around the globe.

Still, I just never warmed up to “An American in Paris,” which has been given a weekend of screenings accompanied by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (March 3-5).

That being said, I’m confident that I’ll never again see the film under such optimal conditions. At Friday’s matinee, the ISO playfully and passionately tackled the score, which includes the title ballet occupying much of the film’s final twenty minutes.

With so little plot that it makes “Singin’ in the Rain” seem like “Memento,” “An American in Paris” follows an artist (Gene Kelly) who opts to stay in Paris after serving in World War II. A socialite with romantic ideas offers him a shot at a gallery show but our hero is really interested in young Leslie Caron, who he doesn’t realize is committed to marrying an acquaintance of his. Kelly’s Jerry is the least interesting guy in the crowd. And Caron isn’t particularly compelling either. But the romance and the weak attempts at humor are really just a clothesline to hang dances and faux Paris locations.

While the presentation reminded me why I don’t love the film, it also reminded me of the pleasure of seeing a movie with an accomplished orchestra. Having the music performed live helps tip the scales, devaluing the screenplay and accentuating the contributions of the Gershwins. It’s an amusing idea in the film to have concert pianist Oscar Levant fantasize performing all parts of the orchestra, but the joke tires quickly and the sequence would feel like padding if not for the ISO’s full force playing “Concerto in F.” When Kelly and Caron dance by the Seine, their grace is upgraded by the elegance of the orchestra. And when the horns come in during “But Not For Me,” all (nearly) of the screenplay’s faults are briefly forgotten if not forgiven.

FYI: The ISO’s 2017/18 season includes live accompaniment to “E.T. The Extra-terrestrial” and “La La Land.”  

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