Goldblum's 'Pittsburgh' rides line between reality and role playing
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Jeff Goldblum arrives at the Vanity Fair party during the 5th Annual Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Goldblum brought one of the 250 films that are being screened during a two week period.
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Actors, filmmakers give story behind comic film 'Pittsburgh'
Jeff Goldblum resurrects fond memories with a journey through his hometown haunts
Published July 4, 2004
Reviews of Goldblum in 'Music Man'
NEW YORK -- Is it real? Or just "real"?
That's what the cinematically hip audience at the Tribeca Film Festival wanted to know at a premiere screening of "Pittsburgh," a new 84-minute comic documentary (or is it "documentary"?) by Chris Bradley and Kyle LaBrache.
The wry, comic story (or "story") is all about actor Jeff Goldblum, returning to his native town with a couple of show-biz pals and his young Canadian girlfriend, Catherine Wreford, to star in a July 2004 production of "The Music Man" at Pittsburgh CLO. The audience laughed as it watched the onscreen Goldblum obsess over taking a break from his film career to return to the musical comedy stage in a challenging role, then rehearse, obsess, panic and perform.
When the film was over and Goldblum, Bradley, LaBrache and co-star Illeana Douglas stood up in three-dimensional reality to answer questions, they mostly dealt with the dominant issue facing all art and media today, the line between reality and fiction.
"Was that really your mother?" they asked Goldblum. Or more to the point, was "Harvey Tyson," who seemed a comically hyper-real figure from a Christopher Guest mockumentary (a summer theater version of "Waiting for Guffman," say), really his stepfather? Was that Goldblum's agent? Had he really turned down high-budget movie offers to go do summer theater?
Peering impishly through owlish glasses, the live Goldblum responded, "That's interesting ... did it seem like my mother?"
Actually she is. "Life," it seems, imitates life. And art imitates both.
As far as this happy, intrigued audience was concerned, "Pittsburgh" could easily be the story of a movie star rather like Goldblum, conspiring with a young woman performer who might or might not really be his girlfriend, to go to a fictional place rather like Pittsburgh and play Harold Hill and Marian the Librarian right there in the barn -- although in this case, the barn is the 2,800-seat Benedum Center.Matt Polk
Jeff Goldblum as Professor Harold Hill in Pittsburgh CLO 's production of "The Music Man."
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But for me, who interviewed Goldblum extensively when he was here that summer and then reviewed his "Music Man" performance not once but twice, the movie is clearly more than 90 percent actual documentary footage, spiced up with planned scenes to heighten plot or character points. But even though I knew that the fellow with the British accent really was CLO director Richard Sabellico and not some actor playing an idea of a comically distressed director, even I doubted that stepfather.
It turns out he's real. Still, I momentarily wondered if the whole thing been an extended put-up job. Was the then-23-year-old Wreford really the fiancee of the 51-year-old Goldblum? (After all, they're no longer together.) The real Goldblum really did struggle with his stage role; his onscreen anxiety is surely real; but is it "enhanced"? Did he possibly go through all that solely for the sake of this comic documentary? Where did the acting begin -- always a question with Goldblum, even in real life?
Then I realized the dynamic at work. Put a distancing frame around anything and it acquires self-consciousness and tilts toward parody, implying fiction, especially in this boundary-crossing age. Imagine watching yourself on film reading the newspaper: Presto, you're an actor. More than just about anyone in that audience, I knew most of the footage was real. But some moments are clearly not, and others fall in between, and it may be impossible to sort them out, even for those involved.
Better just to enjoy the movie, in which Pittsburgh does not, I'm happy to report, look especially foolish -- not even City Councilman Doug Shields, announcing Jeff Goldblum Day in a scene in the mayor's office, for all the silliness of Goldblum's overreaction.
(Disclosure: Like everyone else who dealt with Goldblum during those weeks in 2004, I was shot for the movie, too, on a half-day I spent with him visiting the scenes of his childhood in Squirrel Hill, Homestead and Munhall. But you won't find me complaining that I ended up on the digital cutting-room floor.)
There's an interpretative clue to the movie in the filmmakers' obsession over shots of the Clemente Bridge. I'd guess that's because they were staying right there at the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel, but it points up the neat parallel between our city of three rivers and "Music Man's" fictional town of River City, Iowa. It isn't straining to see a similar parallel between Harold Hill's arrival there, with a con game to launch, and Goldblum's arrival at the CLO, with his own mixed motives (mixed even to him).
At first glance, the skittish Goldblum makes as ambiguous a match with self-assured Harold in real life as he did in his erratic performance on stage. Harold arrives in River City with a firm plan and achieves more than he intends, finding love to boot; Goldblum left Pittsburgh with less stage success than he hoped (and we don't know about the love).
But the movie suggests otherwise, showing a standing ovation to suggest that the opening night went well, and it supplies a Hollywood happy ending with Goldblum and Wreford dreaming of co-stardom on Broadway -- not a bad parallel to Harold and Marian. On film, Goldblum is a very effective "Jeff Goldblum."
And after all, perhaps Goldblum's experience on stage, encouraged by Wreford, is rather like Harold's, who is encouraged and produces a sort of a boys' band in spite of himself. Meanwhile, movie actor Goldblum did leave town with a success after all: the 400 hours of raw footage which were whittled down to these entertaining 84 minutes over the next year and a half by Bradley and LaBrache.
The completed movie's chief targets of gentle parody are Goldblum's goofy obsessiveness, his pal Ed Begley's goofy (however sincere) environmentalism and the totally bizarre on-screen relationship between Douglas and musician Moby. However the latter may have been enacted through improv, it seems entirely storyboarded, like the phone calls from Goldblum's agent about supposed movie deals.
Begley and Douglas are involved because Goldblum talks them into coming along as a package deal, to play Mayor and Mrs. Shinn in the musical. They never seemed especially at home on stage, but they are great in the film, wryly sending themselves up. Wreford always appears mainly as an adjunct to Goldblum, never speaking up for herself. She wasn't at all like that in person.
The quasi-fictionality of the actual "Music Man" performance (and were those shots all of opening night?) is increased by the limits placed on the filmmakers. They could use only a certain amount of creator Meredith Willson's material, so composer David G. Byrne supplies ingratiating accompaniment; and some of the actors didn't sign waivers, so they were further limited in what they shot.
At the present time "Pittsburgh" (the movie) has no distribution deal.
It's never made clear in the film that much rehearsal was extra work done with Goldblum before CLO's famously brief six-day sprint to production. That's a practice that could have been cited in extenuation of the visitors' performances -- and in defense of Goldblum's acting, he turned in a fine nonmusical performance the following year in Broadway's "The Pillowman."
The film is 47 minutes old before Goldblum actually arrives in Pittsburgh, to be interviewed by KDKA's Jennifer Antkowiak, and it's 70 minutes before we arrive at opening night. That performance, though clearly tentative in parts, ends with the ovation which puts a shiny gloss on the troubles Goldblum has had along the way.
That standing O was really (I'd say) for all those Pittsburgh kids playing townspeople.
But what's real?
First Published May 5, 2006 12:00 am