John Cassavetes “sells out” with a Hollywood movie about selling out

John Cassavetes “sells out” with a Hollywood movie about selling out

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With the new Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, headed for theaters, we’ve lined up a week of movies about musicians. 

Too Late Blues (1961)

By the time his debut feature, Shadows, premiered at the 1960 Venice Film Festival, John Cassavetes had already been accused of selling out. Three years earlier, 27-year-old Cassavetes had gone on Jean Shepherd’s cult radio show, Night People, to solicit donations for an independent film project. The film premiered in New York in late 1958, then underwent reshoots so extensive that only 20 minutes of the original footage made it into the final cut. Some of those who’d championed Cassavetes—most notably Jonas Mekas, then one of the chief thinkers of the American independent film scene—considered the more polished second version a betrayal of the original project. The accusation was completely spurious, but it became part of Shadows’—and Cassavetes’—legend.

Shadows wasn’t a box office success, but it brought a lot of attention to Cassavetes from critics, high-minded moviegoers, and, perhaps most importantly, Hollywood. A few months after Shadows won a prize at Venice, Cassavetes signed a deal with Paramount to write and direct several films. Only one movie came out of the contract: Too Late Blues (1961), a drama about a New York jazz pianist who struggles with the repercussions of selling out.

Too Late Blues is a deeply conflicted movie. It’s about independence and authenticity, but was shot with big studio money on a Hollywood back lot. Despite—or maybe because of—its mainstream sheen, it’s one of film history’s least romantic portrayals of what it’s like to make art for a living. The film’s protagonist, Ghost (Bobby Darin, in his first and best dramatic role), is a minor talent trying to eke out a living on the margins of the New York jazz scene; for him, selling out means playing cocktail bars instead of dives. He will never be a star. The only thing he possesses is a vague quality called “integrity,” which doesn’t exactly pay the rent. He is a tragic figure, but not entirely sympathetic. He is an egoist, and his violent streak and doomed relationship with lounge singer Jess (Stella Stevens) further complicate the movie’s take on the music-business divide.

Out of all the broken characters that populate the film, none stands out as sharply as Benny (TV producer Everett Chambers), Ghost’s manager. Chambers delivers one of the all-time-great one-off performances, playing Benny with the kind of hard-edged meanness that invariably grows out of failed idealism. He is the movie’s villain, but he’s also often right. When art becomes business, the things that artists value about themselves—integrity, creativity—become commodities that can be bought and sold stock-market-style; anyone who wants to turn their art into a career has to either recognize this fact, or be destroyed by it.

Availability: Too Late Blues is available on DVD and to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant Video.

Filed Under: Film

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