Friday, June 18, 2010

Flashback Friday: Dick Tracy

Twenty years ago, around June 14th or so, the biggest hyped movie of the summer of 1990 opened in theaters: Dick Tracy. I had a special "ticket" to attend the midnight showing at a theater within a 20 minute walk of my parents' house. The ticket was printed on a black-shirt and required the person to wear it to the theater! It was an innovative idea. I still have that T-shirt somewhere.

The marketing of this major summer release seemed straight out of the previous year's successful Batman juggernaut. In fact, the official logo was pretty spiffy: a profile of the famous comic strip detective in primary colours on a black background:

It is probably one of my favourite movie logo designs (after the Ghostbusters logo, of course). Its very pleasing to the eye (primary colours on black looks pretty striking). The logo was unavoidable in the summer of 1990. However, unlike the Batman logo of the previous summer, I actually did not see many people wearing the Dick Tracy logo on T-shirts. What Disney (the studio that released this movie) did not count on was the surprise phenomenon of Bart Simpson. No matter where I went that summer, Bart Simpson on T-shirts far outnumbered Dick Tracy T-shirts. In my senior year of high school, I became well known for my Batman-logo Converse hightops and even wore them to my graduation ceremony. Well, with part of my graduation money, I bought a wristwatch with the Dick Tracy movie logo. I was such the walking billboard for movies as a teenager!

However, I never got into the Dick Tracy comic strip in the newspaper. It just seemed like a relic from a long ago era that had little relevance to my life. Then again, my preferred comic strips were Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Beetle Bailey and especially Foxtrot. I didn't really get into Doonesbury, either.

The appeal of Dick Tracy as a movie was mainly due to the amount of attention it inspired and the fact that it included Madonna in a high profile supporting role as Breathless Mahoney, the femme fatale siren who tries to seduce the straight-laced detective away from his wholesome girlfriend. It was also intriguing that the publicity shy Warren Beatty was attached to such a pop culture project as this one. He's best known as a politically-involved, serious director who managed to receive critical acclaim and award nominations for a three-hour long movie about communists in Russia (Reds). Oh, and he also made one of the biggest bombs of all time: Ishtar (a word that still sends chills down the spines of Hollywood producers). True to his Lothario reputation, Warren Beatty fell into a high-profile relationship with Madonna, who seemed to pursue a wishlist of fantasy affairs with famous men (John F. Kennedy, Jr. was also apparently another one of her conquests). If you did not find the pairing of Warren Beatty and Madonna to be a little bit odd, well, check out the documentary Truth or Dare, where the extroverted Madonna calls the introverted Beatty a "pussy man" for not wanting to be filmed for her documentary. In return, he chides her for not wanting to live off camera.

The relationship ended shortly after the film was released in theaters. By then, Madonna was busy with her Blonde Ambition Tour and Beatty was onto his next project: about Bugsy Siegel where he once again fell in love with his castmate, though this one managed to do what no other woman had been able to do: convince the confirmed bachelor to settle down and marry. That woman is none other than Annette Bening, who is still married to him the last time I checked.

In the movie, Breathless Mahoney is the seductive nightclub torch singer who has an eye for Dick. She just can't get enough of Dick. She tries every way imagineable to get Dick into her pants. He's tempted, but has a good girl at home who loves him and is actually a better match. In the movie, though, her character is cartoonish, with nearly every line delivered with some kind of sexual innuendo. Madonna is not a great actress or even a particularly good one. She does an adequate job in this movie, because the part is pretty small and plays to her strongest ability: singing and tossing out one liners infused with sexual overtones. By the movie's end, Breathless failed to get Dick and is clearly disappointed.

Al Pacino starred as the main bad guy, leading a gang of freakish mobsters (such as Flattop, Mumbles, the Mole, Pruneface, and others). The above scene was an obvious rip-off of two familiar scenes in 1989's Batman, when the Joker gets irate at Batman snagging the newspaper headlines as well as when the Joker gathers his goons around the table to see who goes along with his plans for mayhem. At the time, I thought it was a bad decision to borrow elements from the Batman film, because it only pales in comparison. The only major difference between the two films is that Dick Tracy went for colourful. It certainly has colour in its favour. That was the point of the movie: to look like a Sunday comic strip on the big screen. However, while Batman soared to a $251 million domestic box office, Dick Tracy barely limped past the $100 million mark.

Also in 1990, Entertainment Weekly magazine debuted. I did not think it would last long, but fortunately, the magazine creators had the good sense to evolve over the years. For many years, it was my favourite magazine. I liked how they included special sections for movies, television, books, and music, along with feature articles and other newsbits. It filled a unique niche, between People, Us Weekly, and Premiere magazines.

The photo above shows the freakish villains of the Dick Tracy movie. Most of the characters were wasted, though. In retrospect, it was probably a good idea to throw all the villainous characters into one movie because no sequel was ever considered due to the box office disappointment. This allowed fans of the comic strip to at least see their favourite villain on screen, even if the villain did not have a speaking part or much screen time.

The above picture of Madonna as Breathless comes from a scene where Dick Tracy threatens to force a confession out of her by shining a powerful light on her. She retorts with, "I sweat a lot better in the dark." When Dick asks why she has no grief for her former mobster boss, named Lips, she replies, "I'm wearing black underwear!" Her role is too campy and vampy, but among all the movies Madonna has acted in, this role is one of her most memorable.


In the spring of 1990, after coming off a string of hits from her 1989 album Like a Prayer, she released a strange album that featured the three songs from the Dick Tracy movie ("Sooner or Later", "More" and "What Can You Lose?", all written by Broadway veteran composer Stephen Sondheim, who received Oscar nominations for two of the songs at the 1991 Academy Awards), as well as songs supposedly "inspired by" the movie and the one song that was merely tacked on to the end, "Vogue", which has nothing to do with the movie or this experimental album of 1930s / 1940s musical styling. At the time of its release, I thought it was a cool album and quickly took a liking to the unusual songs. But the last time I listened to it, I found it extremely dated and almost embarrassingly bad (cheesy doesn't begin to describe it).

After "Vogue" became a huge hit (one of Madonna's best songs), she inexplicably released "Hanky Panky" as a single, which I thought was a throw-away song. There were other songs worthy of release as a single: "Something to Remember", "Sooner or Later", and "Back in Business." She returned to Betty Boop form with "I'm Going Bananas" and "Cry Baby", which are two hilarious songs. Besides "Vogue", though, the other favourite on this album are both parts of "Now I'm Following You" (part 1 is actually a duet with Warren Beatty and part 2 is a dance remix). Besides this Madonna tie-in album, the Dick Tracy film also had a soundtrack album with songs from other artists in the appropriate 1930s / 1940s music style, as well as the official score, featuring the music of composer Danny Elfman (another connection between Batman and Dick Tracy!). I don't think I've ever seen a film before or since that had THREE soundtracks. Talk about overkill.

In retrospect, the Dick Tracy film was more hype than anything else. While I admire the creative use of primary colours, the plot and some scenes were too reminiscent of Batman and I felt that they tried to do too much by giving Dick Tracy more villains than he can deal with at one time, two women vying for his attention, and a streetwise orphan kid to bring out his caring side (practically causing his girlfriend to melt in his arms). It was all just a bit too much for one movie. Nice try, though. Still, when I think about that summer twenty years ago, what comes to mind is my high school graduation, my enlistment in the Navy, my obsession with Johnny Clegg's music, the Dick Tracy versus Bart Simpson products, and Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. There were other movies that summer (particularly sequels to Gremlins and Die Hard), but Dick Tracy is the only one I remember. That's "something to remember"!

1 comment:

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

I remember this movie! As a kid, these comic books were among my favorites.