Unfinished Song

Not the same old song

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It won’t be long before retirement homes are crawling with baby boomers. In the rec room, old hippies and old punk rockers will fight over the remote control, while by the pool, old bikers and old strippers will compare tattoos.

The tearjerker Unfinished Song, in which a choir of retirees sing songs of the MTV era, is a preview of a coming cultural mummification. Fortunately, it features two stars of ’60s cinema, Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave, who infuse it with life.

With his pale blue eyes, Stamp was a heartthrob in the Beatles era, when he starred in Billy Budd, Modesty Blaise and Far from the Madding Crowd. Redgrave, from a family of acting greats, co-starred in the Swingin’ London murder mystery Blow-Up before racking up six Oscar nominations (and winning best supporting actress for Julia).

If the Academy is paying attention—and distributor the Weinstein Co. will ensure that it does—Redgrave will be nominated again, for her role as Marion, a gracefully dying woman who finds solace in music. But this is Stamp’s show, and along with 1999’s The Limey, it punctuates a remarkable career comeback for a man who once took a decade-long sabbatical to India.

Stamp plays Arthur, Marion’s gruff husband. Arthur tends to the physical needs of his cancer-ridden wife, but when Marion practices pop songs at the local community center, under the direction of volunteer choirmaster Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), the embarrassed husband retreats to the pub.

At an outdoor audition for a national contest, the pensioners don heavy-metal wigs to perform Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” and Marion’s trembling solo of Cindi Lauper’s “True Colors” ensures the gig. But shortly before the bus trip to the finals, Marion is unable to perform.

Elizabeth gently befriends Arthur and encourages him to take Marion’s place and thus make peace with their grown son, James (Christopher Eccleston), who resents the old man for a lifetime of English reserve.

Like a chorale kin to The Full Monty, the performance for the judges is one of those hokey showstoppers where uptight Brits succumb to naughty joy. Yet the fact that Arthur is the only member of the troupe who isn’t wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt and singing a rap about sex essentially negates the gimmick of the movie (which was borrowed from a documentary called Young at Heart). With his dignity intact, valiant Arthur is able to deliver a vocal valentine to Marion that seals the movie with a tearful kiss.
The crescendo of two resonant careers makes the false notes of Unfinished Song forgivable.

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