The Saddest Music in the World is the funniest musical of the decade—the 1930s, that is. Guy Maddin’s latest extravaganza, improbably adapted from an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, is the best Big Broadcast ever—a stompin’ mishmash, 100 minutes of demented vaudeville and murky montage, spasmodic violence and even splatter. The sound mix is equally compelling: Inexplicable ranting competes with near-constant background music, most often the saccharine Jerome Kern ballad “The Song Is You.”
Characters take turns warbling “I hear music when I look at you” and indeed, this is a movie that encourages the viewers to add their own hallucinations to the churning mix. The action begins in—or rather, seeps from—a sort of projection booth in which a gypsy fortune-teller out of an old werewolf movie predicts a dismal future for chipper, if broke, Broadway impresario and Canadian expat Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) and his winsome companion Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros). Narcissa is Maddin’s requisite amnesiac, but Chester has childhood traumas to spare—although they don’t seem to trouble him much.
Like all of Maddin’s films, The Saddest Music is shot in a deliberately anachronist style—tinted black-and-white with color inserts, gauzy glamour, halated backlighting. It’s the Depression winter of 1933, fake snow is falling, and the filmmaker’s native Winnipeg—visualized as a ramshackle shantytown out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—has been voted the World Capital of Sorrow. Capitalizing on that distinction, while positioning her enterprise for the imminent end of prohibition in the U.S., local beer baron Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) launches a contest to determine the nation with . . . the saddest music in the world.
As Maddin films go, The Saddest Music is relatively easy to follow and yet, given its convoluted narrative connections, it resists synopsis. How does one succinctly explain that Port-Huntly has a past involving not only Chester but his irascible father, Fyodor, and the drunken amputation of both her legs? Or that Narcissa has forgotten that she was once married to Chester’s savagely depressed older brother Roderick? Or that Roderick, who keeps his dead son’s heart in a jar and is passing for Serbian, now calls himself “Gavrilo the Great, Europe’s Greatest Cellist”?
It’s not just that the movie is as densely edited as Maddin’s five-minute masterpiece, The Heart of the World. Like the irrepressible Chester, who, somehow representing the U.S., plans to present “sadness but with sass and pizzazz,” the filmmaker has a unique comic style—sight gags top soundtrack jokes and deadpan ridiculous dialogue. The gloomy art deco Flash Gordon sets are an unending source of amusement. Because everything is funny and nothing provides a punchline, audiences may be too shell-shocked to laugh—you know you’re in Maddinville when individual cackles detonate at unexpected intervals.
The contests, broadcast live, are accompanied by absurd color commentary (“Nobody can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats, or twins”) and the winners celebrate their victory by riding a chute into a giant beer vat. As the numbers grow increasingly elaborate, and funerals begin to insinuate themselves into the spectacle, the melodrama heats up—particularly after Fyodor attempts to placate Port-Huntly by giving her a pair of prosthetic legs made of glass and filled with beer. Representing the U.S. and Serbia, the brothers face off in the finals. Chester conducts a panpipe ensemble and the bested Bengali team reconfigured as Eskimos in a peppy rendition of “California, Here I Come.” Then the glowering Roderick weighs in with his cello. In the universal cacophony, the sponsor unveils her new gams and . . . suffice it to say that the movie has a suitably apocalyptic closer complete with Chester banging out “The Song Is You” as the set goes up in flames.
Piling up clichés in the service of an arcane personal mythology, The Saddest Music in the World is as fetishistic in its way as Kill Bill. But, although its leisurely running time seems designed to induce stupefaction or hysteria (or some strange combination of the two), it cannot be accused of solipsism. The one thing Maddin takes seriously is his title. (The movie’s really big subjects include the horror of World War I, the nature of commercial entertainment, and the globalizing triumph of American pop.) Like everything in Maddin’s oeuvre, The Saddest Music in the World is a contribution to the imaginary history of our times.