Cradle Will Rock [1999]

"Based on a (mostly) true story," according to the opening titles, Tim Robbins's dazzling dramatization of one of the great stories in American theater indeed takes a few liberties with history. Ostensibly the story of the mayhem surrounding Marc Blitzstein's worker's opera The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles for the WPA at the height of the Depression, Robbins paints a veritable mural around this incident, a city alive with plotting industrialists (John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller), radical artists (Ruben Blades's Diego Rivera), and struggling citizens (Bill Murray's frustrated vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw). Lightning strikes when the government closes the show before it even opens and the cast marches 20 blocks to an empty theater and tosses the staging aside to perform in the aisles, the balconies, and the seats. It's a rare moment of cinema capturing the immediacy and charge of live theater on the screen and it's the heart of Robbins's often exhilarating film. His heroes are Blitzstein (a warm, gently impassioned Hank Azaria) and cheery WPA Theater director Hallie Flanagan (Broadway star Cherry Jones), but in the process he snidely turns Welles and producer John Houseman into sour, silly caricatures. The stew of artistic creation and political action gets murky and at times contradictory, but vivid performances and Robbins' driving pace and staccato crosscutting keep it humming through even the most didactic moments. The songs are by Blitzstein, and the character-rich cast also features Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, Emily Watson, and Philip Baker Hall. --Sean Axmaker

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