The Bootleg Files: Mack the Knife

BOOTLEG FILES 648: “Mack the Knife” (1989 film version of “The Threepenny Opera” starring Raul Julia and Roger Daltry).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: VHS and LaserDisc releases only.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Out of circulation for many years

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely, but not impossible.

One of the minor mysteries of the movie musical genre has been the failure to create a satisfactory screen adaption of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill theatrical landmark “The Threepenny Opera.” Not that there haven’t been several attempts. In 1931, director G.W. Pabst simultaneously helmed a German- and French-language version. (An English-language version, to be distributed in the U.S. by Warner Bros., was planned but never shot.) Those films, unfortunately, jettisoned much of the glorious score and were burdened by the stodginess that permeated many of the early sound-era films.

Then, another version was made in Germany in 1963. Americans have been unable to appreciate the original version of that production because a shoddily dubbed English-language edition was released on this side of the Atlantic, featuring new footage of Sammy Davis Jr. as the Street Singer shoehorned into the film. To date, the original German-language version has not been made available in the U.S. market.

In 1989, news percolated that an English-language feature film based on “The Threepenny Opera” was going to be released. However, there were two big hiccups in this announcement. First, the film was being retitled as “Mack the Knife” – it was feared that audiences would stay away from a movie with the word “opera” in it. And, besides, the song “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” was the most famous song from the score, if only for the swinging pop tune versions recorded by Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin in the 1950s – most everyone would recognize “Mack the Knife” based on those classic recordings.

But the second hiccup was more difficult to overcome: this film was going to be directed by Menahem Golan, the low-rent Israeli filmmaker best known for his shlocky action-adventure flicks. Golan took it upon himself to write the screenplay adaptation and (for no clear reason) to rewrite some of the English-language lyrics. This was something of a challenge, since Golan had no previous experience with adapting stage musicals for the screen, and it quickly became obvious that he was not up to the task.

What went wrong? For starters, Golan viewed “The Threepenny Opera” through the spectrum of a standard glitzy Broadway musical and not as the expressionistic “play with music” envisioned by Brecht and Weill. In Golan’s version, ensemble performers break into dance with no warning – not to mention with no reason – and the acting is mostly framed with a wink-at-the-audience broadness that Brecht and Weill never intended. Too often, the characters sing directly into the camera, creating a cutesy anachronism that grows stale quickly. In responding to his B-movie instincts, Golan also created a wacky chase sequence that was not in the stage show (and did not belong in the film), and the original music segments were reconfigured into syrupy-sweet distractions where the ironic bitterness of the material was sandblasted into dreary shtick staged amid the ugliest, phoniest-looking sets imaginable.

In fairness, Golan did not seem to intentionally sabotage his film. Recalling the positive, Tony-nominated performance by Raul Julia in the brilliant 1976 Lincoln Center production of “The Threepenny Opera,” Golan signed Julia to recreate the role of Macheath, also known as Mack the Knife. And in a nod to eclectic tastes, he brought in soprano Julia Migenes, who shined in the title role of Francesco Rosi’s 1984 film “Bizet’s Carmen,” as Pirate Jenny.

Golan also cast some familiar faces in supporting parts: Roger Daltrey as the Street Singer, Richard Harris as the crime lord Peachum and Julie Walters as his silly drunken wife. Sadly, all three of these performers had a chronic habit of overplaying for the camera, and Golan allowed them to indulge their worst instincts by giving the broadest emoting this side of the silent movie melodramas. But while Harris and Walters could churn out cheap laughs by playing to the last row of the theater, Daltrey was particularly bothersome, since Golan expanded his role from an opening- and closing-credits figure to a frequent participant in the action, even going so far as to insert him into musical numbers where his character was never intended to appear – and where his presence was an annoying distraction.

Strangely, it seems that Julia is in his own film. His Macheath mirrors the intensity and solemnity of his stage performance – which I had the blessed fortune to experience back in the day – and he captures the charismatic villainy of the character. Still, Julia’s versatility wasn’t enough to carry the whole film, and his scenes with model-turned-bad actress Rachel Robertson as Polly Peachum and Migenes (playing at a half-full tank) as Jenny are lopsided due to this co-stars’ enervation.

There is one guilty pleasure to be found here: an extended catfight between Robertson’s Polly and Erin Donovan’s Lucy Brown. The sequence sticks out like a sore thumb, but fans of WWE mayhem will certainly enjoy watching these two shapely lovelies battle with a thermonuclear intensity that gives the film a boost of energy, albeit of the wrong kind.

Audiences were mostly unaware that “Mack the Knife” existed. The film received a scant theatrical release, with negative reviews ensuring audience turnout would be nil. There was a VHS video and a LaserDisc release, but to date it has yet to emerge on DVD or Blu-ray.

Brecht-Weill fans who are curious about this mishmash can find an unauthorized posting of the film on YouTube. But, really, why bother? Maybe we should just wait until someone figures out how to do a competent adaptation of this memorable show for the big screen.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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