Mack the Knife

Never mind the new title. This film is still Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, a 1928 musical about poverty and corruption that provokes frequent reinterpretation. A recent Broadway version featured Sting as Macheath, the infamous Victorian gang leader known as Mack the Knife. The show limped to a close after a mere sixty-five performances. Despite the contemporary window dressing – a rock-star hero and a chorus of homeless people – the show's ambition far exceeded its grasp, and Sting proved surprisingly light of voice, charm and stage presence.

Still, the Broadway flop seems like a classic compared with this misbegotten movie effort, written and directed by Menahem Golan, former chairman of the Cannon Group and current head of 21st Century Film Corporation, which debuts with this dull-edged Knife. Golan, best known for directing Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top and Chuck Norris in The Delta Force, is clearly out of his league when mind counts for more than muscle.

It's too bad. The casting had possibilities. Roger Daltrey turns up not as Mack but as the bedraggled Street Singer and delivers a vibrant version of the title song in the hurdy-gurdy style the composer intended; there's none of the finger snapping popularized by Bobby Darin. But Golan, seeing Daltrey's box-office potential, drags the Who alumnus into scenes where his character doesn't belong, finally wearing out Daltrey's welcome.

Sixteen-year-old Rachel Robertson, the sizzler from the Levi's commercials, is in fine voice and form as Polly Peachum, the innocent corrupted by the bigamist Mack. But as Polly's parents, Richard Harris and Julie Walters mug outrageously, missing the irony in their roles as rulers of London's beggar underground.

The burden of carrying the film falls on Raul Julia, whose Tony-nominated performance as Mack in the 1976 Broadway production sounded the right dark notes in a part too often played for swagger. Julia's bleat of a voice is still a perfect evocation of Mack's killer instincts, but his acting seems as enervated as Golan's direction. In contrast, diva Julia Migenes puts real sexual fire into Jenny, Mack's prostitute lover, but her soaring soprano warms what should be chilling in the songs. Listen on record to the unforgettable rasp of the original Jenny, Weill's widow, Lotte Lenya, to hear how a voice can scrape the heart and rouse the conscience. Brecht worked against the beauty of Weill's melodies to grab attention.

Living in the ominous shadows of pre-Hitler Germany, Brecht and Weill (about the same age as the Beatles when they started) turned John Gay's eighteenth-century English musical The Beggar's Opera into a radical cry against oppression, and the result revolutionized the musical theater. You'd never guess this from Golan's candy-coated vaudeville. The sets, which Brecht wanted spare and alienating, are dressed up like a toy-store window. Golan behaves as if he were directing a crowd pleaser on the order of The Sound of Music or Oliver. Worse is Golan's bowdlerization of the material. He has used and abused Marc Blitzstein's English adaptation of the acclaimed Threepenny that ran off-Broadway from 1953 to 1960. Blitzstein, working in the restrictive Fifties, toned down Brecht's more sexually suggestive and politically incendiary allusions. For the 1976 Broadway version, starring Julia, translators Ralph Manheim and John Wellett restored Brecht's blunt kicks at colonialism and greed. Jenny even sang of flushing her aborted pregnancy "down the sewer." How infuriating, then, to witness Golan's cowardly retreat into the safety of pap. Mack and Jenny's whorehouse becomes a "sweet two-by-four where we played house," and Golan's Threepenny for the Nineties becomes a travesty that reduces a rule-busting master-piece into chokingly conventional fluff.

From The Archives Issue 571: February 8, 1990
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