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What I've Learned
I saw two movies this week that I hadn't seen before. One is serious and substantial; the other, pure fun. Both are foreign films – one Russian, the other Japanese – subtitled in English. Both will make you happy to be alive.
Let's start with the serious one.
It's called Ballad for a Soldier and takes place in Russia during WWII. There are war sequences, but they are short and appear only at the beginning of the movie.
Nineteen-year-old Alyosha Skvortsov, a private, is granted six days leave from the front to go home and fix the roof on his mother's house. He has two days to get home, two days to do the roofing, and two days to report back to his unit.
Filmed in 1959 in black and white (you won't mind, honest), Ballad for a Soldier is the odyssey of Alyosha's trip home, during which he meets a number of civilians and brings hope and sunshine into their lives. It's a film, not about war--though wartime is its setting--but about kindness.
One of the civilians Alyosha meets is the beautiful, though young and innocent, Shura, who is going to visit her fiance, a wounded Russian pilot recovering in hospital. Alyosha takes Shura under his wing, and they travel together. She is promised to another, so Alyosha and Shura resist their growing affection for each other. The chemistry between them almost sets the screen on fire.
I really love this film. It's sweet and moving and managed to break my heart like no other film has. Netflix is offering it right now for live streaming and on DVD. Amazon will sell you a copy for about $22.
The part of Alyosha is played by Vladimir Ivashov, who was 20 at the time. It was his first on-screen role. Shura is played by Zhanna Prokhorenko, who was 19. Ballad for a Soldier was her first film, as well.
Director Grigori Chukhrai said this about his young actors.
"We took a big risk. It was risky to give the main roles to quite inexperienced actors. Not many would have done so in those times, but we ventured and did not regret afterwards. Volodya and Zhanna gave the most precious colouring to the film, that is, the spontaneity and charm of youth."
Vladimir Ivashov went on to act in 41 Russian films. His career ended in 1995 with his death at age 55. Zhanna Prokhorenko has been in 35 Russian films and tv series, the latest in 2002.
If you only see one of these two movies, see Ballad for a Soldier. Still, the second one, called Swing Girls, is a lot of fun.
Let me first say that, as a musician, nothing bothers me more in a film than bad finger-faking. That is, when an actor pretends to play a musical instrument and does an unconvincing job of it. The instrument is held incorrectly and the fingerings are clumsy and out of sync – or bear no relationship at all – with the music. Bad finger-faking will ruin a movie for me in a down beat.
With Swing Girls (released in 2004), there is no danger of bad finger-faking because the girls – a big band full of them – are actually playing the instruments.
This is a light-weight movie, a comedy about some Japanese school girls who, through their own bungling, get roped into playing in the school band. They end up, after a number of crazy escapades – including a close encounter with a wild boar – forming a jazz band, instead. The excellent thing about this movie is that the progress we see the girls make in learning to play and learning about jazz, parallels the real-life experience of the actors, most of whom didn't know how to play before being cast in this film. They spent five months going from non-musicians to pretty good ones by the time filming started.
After the film was released, to prove that the girls were really playing, the band went on tour.
In writing about the film, one reviewer said, "The Swing Girls themselves may not hit all the right notes, but this movie does." I agree. (Just so you know, at the end, they do hit all the right notes. I've watched the ending about ten times, just for the sheer musical joy of it.)
A few years ago I wrote about another Japanese film, Linda Linda Linda, in which actresses really learned to play guitars, bass, and drums for their roles. (Okay, the bass player already knew how, but the other three learned.) For me, Swing Girls, as a movie, doesn't rank close to Linda, Linda, Linda. Still, it's a lot of fun.
With all the destruction and concerns in Japan right now, Swing Girls will take you back to a happier time.
I saw Swing Girls, subtitled in English, for free on YouTube.