As Labor Day comes to a close, I thought I’d recommend a movie that’s been one of my favorites for quite some time that deals with the highly appropriate themes of worker’s rights, unions, and freedom of expression. I’m talking cradle boxabout 1999’s Cradle Will Rock. Written, directed, and produced by Tim Robbins, Cradle Will Rock is set during the Great Depression, spanning the inception of the eponymous musical to its unorthodox opening performance after budget cuts to the Federal Theater Project (FTP), a branch of President Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration (WPA), shut down all new productions. Surrounding the main story of the musical’s highs and lows are several interconnecting storylines that flesh out life in the Depression-Era America, including several well-known cultural icons and figures of note.

The movie itself is a semi-fictionalized account of The Cradle Will Rock‘s (Robbins dropped the The) original production and what blows my mind about this movie is the truth embedded in every point of connection. The Cradle Will Rock was a real musical, produced by Orson Welles and John Houseman, that was originally performed by the main cast from the audience of the theater when the show’s writer and composer, Marc Blitzstein, provided 00348w9gnarration and musical accompaniment on stage to sidestep union rules that forbid the actors to participate. Clearly it was a play that the cast and crew believed in, one that was unabashedly pro-union in a time when labor unions were the bane of industrialists looking to capitalize on cheap and disposable labor.

Circling The Cradle Will Rock are a number of stories containing their own measures of truth and fiction. These stories include the notorious Diego Rivera painting, Man at the Crossroads, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for the lobby of the Rockefeller Center (recently featured in the Netflix series Sense8), the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ investigation into the FTP, and the complicity of American industrialists in providing funds to dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. All of it is tied together through the common themes of censorship in and of the arts, labor issues, immigration, and the disparity between the wealthy and the poor that does more to fully realize life in America than a typical event-based movie. Though Tim Robbins took some liberties with the various stories, the political and philosophical underpinnings of the script are fully justified by the characters and their actions.

The cast is a veritable who’s-who of character actors who, by now, are most well-known actors in their own right. At the time, though, many members of the cast were still operating below Hollywood’s radar. The cast includes Hank Azaria as Marc Blitzstein, Emily Watson as The Cradle Will Rock actress and singer Olive Stanton, John Cusack as cradle will rockNelson Rockefeller, Angus Macfadyen as Orson Welles, Cary Elwes as John Houseman, Ruben Blades as Diego Rivera, John Turturro as fictional actor Aldo Silvano, and Cherry Jones as FTP producer, director, and playwright Hallie Flanagan. Filling out the cast are Billy Murray, Joan Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Giamatti, Jack Black, Kyle Gass, Susan Sarandon, and Philip Baker Hall. Robbins also rounded out the cast with veteran Broadway performers for much of the musical scenes as well as minor roles for still-living members of The Cradle Will Rock‘s original cast. With such a massive ensemble it’s amazing that no single member of the company is given an elevated status that might signal them as the main character. Robbins as a writer and director is generous yet fair with the amount of time each character has to shine, assuring us that there are no favorites and that the story is properly served.

If you have the time and have an interest in this time in America’s history, or you’re looking for a good discussion about art and politics, Cradle Will Rock will most definitely give you something to talk about by the film’s end. And you get some pretty sweet Broadway songs to tap your feet to.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s