Stormy Weather

(Andrew Stone, USA, 1943): Even if the manifest story told by Stormy Weather is a tad whimsical and dubious — it’s the divine tap maestro Bill Robinson’s account of his own life in showbiz as told to a group of superkeen Hollywood kids gathered on a studio front porch — there are other stories told in Andrew Stone’s all-black 1943 musical that more than compensate for the dispensable but structurally handy silliness on the surface. The first, of course, is the story of Hollywood’s brief but luminous attempt to make mainstream studio movies about black music and idealized experience during the Depression and early WWII years — Green PasturesHallelujahCabin in the Sky — but it’s the second that renders Stormy Weather nothing short of a crackerjack archival treasure: the story of African-American music at mid-century, as radio, recordings and the occasional movie were conspiring as mass cultural forces to bring changes to popular music (and ultimately beyond, to politics and social attitudes) that would eventually culminate in the seismic shifts of rock & roll, r &b, and civil rights. Viewed for this narrative, Stormy Weather is easily one of the most vibrant and essential troves of insurgent black musical treasure we’ve got, and yet another reason to slap one’s forehead in dismay when confronted with that grim disclaimer, imposed not only on this but the contemporary Warner DVD releases of Hallelujah and Cabin in the Sky, that asks us to forgive the movie for its racial insensitivity. At the very least, the fact the movie rises so thunderously above even this attempt at demeaning and reducing it (to a kind of embarrassing flashback to unenlightened dark ages) is just another argument for its fire-starting power. If you can emerge from the Nicholas Brothers’ final and furious dance number and still think Stormy Weather has anything to apologize for, all hope is lost anyway.

So let’s consider the movie as history, at least of a sort. As Bill gregariously spins his life yarn for those kids on the studio porch, he begins with his return home from the First World War, where he meets (and dances) with the caramel-sweet and gorgeous singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne, Robinson’s junior by some four decades), ends up travelling north after a minstrel show sting and waiting juke-joint tables, and ultimately dances his way back onto the big stage into Selina’s eternally warm and beating heart. Along the way, encounters with a few gamely performing fellow travellers of the popular music road to glory (Waller, Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers) are so electric as to effectively drain the Technicolor right out of Oz — and Stormy Weather is in black and white.

While Horne’s soul-shuddering climatic rendition of the title number is deservedly lodged in the firmament of excerpted movie musical moments, and Calloway’s hair-unslicking performance of ‘Geechy Joe’ tells you all you need to know about where rock music would find its balls, the movie finds its surest passage of pure musical epic poetry in a fifteen-minute segment that takes Robinson from the minstrel stage, where black performers in blackface perform the kind of plantation extravaganza that was both typical and phenomenally popular for both black and white audiences of its day (and from which both Al Jolson and Bing Crosby at least partly sprang), to an upriver barge where an impromptu dance and Tramp Band jug jam busts loose, and finally to the Memphis joint proudly announcing the appearance that night of Fats Waller (making a killer screen appearance before passing on only months later).

By the time we enter those doors and encounter Bill about to take the order from the table where Selina sits in mock-oblivious anticipation of her foretold reunion with the man who danced so divinely way back at the beginning, Stormy Weather has taken us on a remarkably economical and musically articulated history of black American music and performance from the 19th century up to the horizon of what would eventually mark the new frontier of twentieth century popular music. From Stephen Foster to Fats Waller, the Broadway plantation to Memphis juke joint, from minstrelsy to rhythm and blues, tap to jive, this is the propulsive upstream steamrolling of African-American musical performance into the heart of country, the rhythmic foundations of the country’s most popular musical forms, and the consciousness of a world now technologically tuned in like never before. It’s a truly stunning passage, if more for the suggestive economy of the journey than its cinematic articulation — director Andrew Stone is hardly Cabin‘s Vincente Minnelli, but he knows enough to set the frame, sit back respectfully and get out of the music’s way — and by the time it has dropped you in Waller’s ample and randy lap for ‘Ain’t Misbehavin'”, the only logical place to bounce from there is straight into the future. If you want to keep that momentum going and follow the logic of the music as mapped out by Stormy Weather, I’d suggest springing straight into The Girl Can’t Help It. (Warner Home Video)