Pennies from Heaven Poster

Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Drama | Romance   
IMDB Rayting:   6.5/10
Country: USA
Language: English

During the Great Depression, a sheet music salesman seeks to escape his dreary life through popular music and a love affair with an innocent school teacher.

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User Reviews

robb_772 7 May 2006

An Americanized adaptation of the six-part 1978 British miniseries, underrated director Herbert Ross' brilliant PENNIES FROM HEAVEN was a huge commercial flop in US when originally released. Audiences of 1981 did not seem to understand the concept of a depression-era musical, where the actors lip-synch to original recording from the in 1930s in elaborate fantasies that are far removed from the actual world in which they inhabit. Though extremely unconventional, this device is absolutely heart-wrenching as the dreariness of the real world breaks away to the brightly-colored, perpetually optimistic fantasy land that only lives in the lyrics of popular songs. It is the eternal agony of the dreamer that is expressed; the cold reality that leaves us destined to reach for the sky, but doomed to walk the earth.

This leaves the film's cast with a difficult task, as they must not only contend with their dramatic art, but also be well versed in a variety of demanding dances and highly disciplined choreography. Comedian Steve Martin is far from the first choice to portray the downtrodden protagonist in any film, but the actor acquits himself expertly in both the film's demanding dance and drama. Mousy Jessica Harper delves into her eternally repressed character so deeply that one is never certain where one stops and the other begins; a triumph of form for any thespian. Renowned dancer Vernel Bagneris is mesmerizing as the film's most ambiguous character, and his density-defying dance to Arthur Tracy's heartbreaking rendition of the title song is one of my favorite moments in any film.

Even more impressive is tough guy actor Christopher Walken's then-unexpected prowess on the dance floor, as he delivers a riotously funny and surprisingly sexy striptease to Irving Aaronson's "Let's Misbehave." In this sequence, Walken pulls off the difficult hat trick of satisfying both seasoned viewers and film neophytes, while still managing to leave both groups wanting more. Best of all, however, is the lovely Bernadette Peters in a superb, Golden Globe award-winning performance. Never before has Peters' slightly tarnished Kewpie-doll personae been better utilized, and the actress' transformation from repressed schoolmarm to hardened prostitute feels both stunningly and horrifyingly real.

Herbert Ross and his creative team manage to bind all of the pieces together into one seamless collage of lost hope, forced optimism, and never-ending desperation. Gordon Willis' cinematography is never less than completely awe-inspiring, and the combined efforts of top-drawer art and set direction and Bob Mackie's seemingly authentic period costumes helps cement the look and feel of desolate decade that the film represents. Over all films in every genre, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN would be a likely contender to receive my vote for the single most underrated film masterpiece of the last twenty years. It exudes all of the contradictory joy and heartbreak that the movies offer, and serves it all up in one stunning presentation.

djfoster 3 August 2004

When Herb Ross opened "Pennies From Heaven" during Christmas of 1981 it met with harsh press and public indifference. Many concluded the musical was dead.

But "Pennies," like Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz" released two years before, is a key transitional work that juxtaposed the cynicism of the '70s to the exhilaration and escapist fantasy of its buoyant Depression era score.

Steve Martin ran the risk of alienating his fan base by trading in the "Wild and Crazy" guy for the brooding, unfaithful Arthur Parker. But he's a revelation. And what a dancer!

It was no surprise when audiences stayed away.

By all means watch it today, particularly on the new widescreen DVD release. You'll walk away with a greater appreciation of Christopher Walken, Bernadette Peters and especially Steve Martin.

It makes it so much harder to watch this major talent wasting himself in such tripe as "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Bringing Down the House."

roseofsharon 23 June 2003

If you are truly interested in seeing this film, please read the review written by Pauline Kael, who with her unique voice, says everything I am about to try to say, perfectly. This may not be a movie for everybody. First, you may have to have some patience for musicals. And secondly, you may have to have patience for complex people and their problems. I have watched this movie with two friends, and the first yawned everytime the actors opened their mouths to lip sync the beautiful and strange Depression era songs. The second found the role played by Steve Martin heartbreaking, and could not watch the entire film. But I think this movie can be extremely rewarding, and have found myself watching it a least once a year for the past few years. I think the Depression makes an excellent back round in this bittersweet story of blind optimism, and this movie greatly inspires my imagination. I imagine the whole U.S. as it was in the early part of the century, filled with millions of dreamers, greedy for sex and love and money, just like people are now, only now most people have a shot at a least one of those things, and during the depression, beautiful and hopelessly empty dreams were everywhere, as poverty crushed lives right and left. Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters are as connected and magical together as they are in the Jerk. In fact, everything I love about The Jerk is what I love about Pennies From Heaven. Some of the musical sequences are breathtaking, particularly a dance number performed by Christopher Walken ! And the subtle beauty of the last song sung by Steve Martin, I don't know how to describe it. In closing, this movie is not for everybody. But I know I am not the only person out there who will see this movie as the unique gift that it is. Please give it a shot.

Pamsanalyst 12 November 2004

the more I am amazed. It is the film that Chicago could have been were it not for its irony. I never saw the BBC original, but fondly remember Potter's "The Singing Detective." I can understand that Hoskin's Cockney optimism would fit Pennies' lead character to a tee, but Martin gives us a hint of the fragility of the song pusher's world, like Willy Loman, out there on a shoeshine, and for Martin, a song.

The film is innovative and definitely not your father's musical, and the songs, done up not in 1981 over-orchestration but in that tinny sound of early vinyl, just blow me away. After I saw it, I went searching for Follow the Fleet just to see 'Face the Music' in reel time.

This film will not be everyone's cup of tea. It is one of those movies that I say works best when you begin with "Once upon a time."

ptb-8 6 February 2005

I am glad I don't live in Frostbite Falls because I might shiver at the thought of such a complex and clever film as PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Made with a massive 1980 budget of $22 million and all of it up there on the screen, this genuine masterwork is one of the great unappreciated and misunderstood films of its day. The biggest hurdle the film could not overcome (then) was the casting of comedy stars in Art Deco darkness. Steve Martin had just scored a bullseye in the wild comedy THE JERK. For mainstream audiences to even then turn around and slightly embrace the sad loneliness of PENNIES' aching melancholy is impossible. PENNIES' failed and was consigned to misfire history. Today in 2005 this film deserves to stand with CHICAGO or even MOULIN ROUGE in its sly dark new century crowd pleaser theatrics. It is a film for this century and if audiences today have the chance to appreciate and applaud it's brilliant creative slant and dramatic spectacle, it will be a success. Possibly in the same ironic fantasy manner of THE PIRATE or YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, or LADY IN THE DARK of the 40s, ITS ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER from 1955, maybe THE BOYFRIEND of the 70s and even the original 1988 HAIRSPRAY by John Waters, PENNIES' belongs to that rare style of musical spectacle: the emotional fantasy with a dark satire core. Truly great.

dancingmike 7 June 2005

Much has already been written here saying positive things about Pennies From Heaven, but the best reason for the excellence of the film lies in the fact that the screenplay was written by Dennis Potter. I give the film a 9 and the BBC series a 10+++. There is so much more to this story than can be told in a single film.

Potter wrote what I consider the two most brilliant series ever on television, Pennies From Heaven starring Bob Hoskins and The Singing Detective starring Michael Gambon. Both were dark films with more than their share of irony. Potter interjected popular music of the eras into the story lines in their original versions lip-synced by the actors. These films aren't for casual viewers. You need to keep your brain attached and operating all the time, so smart is Potter's writing. Those of us who make the effort are rewarded with stories of sheer genius.

The jump from England in the BBC mini-series to the US in the films works better than I would have imagined. I give all the credit to the producers who had the good sense to have Potter do the screenplays for both films. They are translated to a similar mood and setting and the music is well integrated. I think the adaptation of The Singing Detective is more like the BBC version because the numbers aren't so overproduced as in Pennies From Heaven. On the other hand, the cast of Pennies is a powerhouse of musical talent with Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken and the surprisingly good Steve Martin. With lesser talent in both the writing and acting the big production numbers would have overwhelmed the story.

Watch the US films first and then follow them up with the BBC versions. Make the intellectual investment and reap your rewards. These BBC series are brilliant. If you need more mental stimulation after these two series have boosted your IQ, try to hunt down Lipstick On Your Collar. This is a later Dennis Potter BBC series based on what turned out to be the "final straw" in the fall of the British Empire, the loss of Egypt and the Suez Canal to a considerably out manned and out gunned Egyptian army. This, too, could work as a film (obviously not translated to the US), but only if Dennis Potter could be reincarnated to do the screenplay.

Holden_Pike 28 September 1998

Unique, amazing film. Each of the big, sometimes complex, musical numbers is a look inside one of the character's heads, showing how they perceive the 1930s Depression Era world around them. Their dreams (or delusions) usually have little to do with reality. Steve Martin's Arthur is a bizarre, almost unredeemable amoral man who creates a pretend morality in the vision of the music he loves: he claims to listen to the words, that he is a pure romantic, but the reality of his actions constantly opposes this. Bernadette Peters is, well, Bernadette Peters...she's gorgeous and perfect here as the mousey then trampy object of Arthur's obsession. And Christopher Walken has a show stopping tap-dance sequence that must be seen to be believed. Great stuff that at the very least you have never seen anything quite like before. Darkly ironic eye-candy that stays with you.

jhawk38-1 4 May 2001

Unusual story combining drama, musical numbers and fine performances by all concerned. This had to have been one of the first times that Steve Martin was allowed to show that he is so much more than just some guy with an arrow through his head, a fact that has been demonstrated time and time again over the past 20 years.

This film physically depicts the depression era in beautifully muted tones and powerfully evokes the desperate feelings of people trying to make ends meet during hard times. Martin gives a dead on performance of a man with nothing left in his moral bank account. Arthur does and says whatever it takes to gain the instant gratification he constantly seeks.

As for the ensemble musical numbers, let me just say that even Busby Berkeley might have been envious. Martin and Peter's turn at Fred and Ginger was well beyond adequate and Walken's tap dance number is worth the price of admission.

I watched this movie the other evening after not having seen it for several years. I was amazed at how much it had improved with age. This movie could almost certainly never be made today and, in fact, I find it hard to believe it was ever made. Hollywood rarely takes chances of any kind and this movie had to have been a huge gamble, even in 1981.

marcslope 9 August 2004

One reason musicals have been going out of style for the past 30-odd years is that audiences simply don't buy the escapism and optimism that permeated the genre in its heyday. This lavish and biting 1981 work solves the problem brilliantly by using the upbeat nature of '30s popular song ironically. The production numbers, and there are many, are toe-tapping, feel- good entities that play in devastating counterpoint to the somber narrative. The production design is amazing, Martin a surprisingly sympathetic Everyman with some rough edges, Peters perfection, Walken amazing in his one scene (imagine what a brilliant Pal Joey he would have made). But then, everybody in this movie seems to be performing at his peak: Even Marvin Hamlisch, whose musical scoring is usually so soppy and obvious, comes through. A salute, too, to Herbert Ross and his wife, Nora Kaye, for employing so many wonderful stage- trained dancers who seldom got a chance to shine on film: Robert Fitch, Vernel Bagneris, and Tommy Rall, who was so splendid in the movie of "Kiss Me, Kate." As far as I'm concerned, the movie's a masterpiece -- but nobody went to see it, and Ross reacted by making nothing but safe, mainstream entertainment for the rest of his life. At least this one shows the audacity and power of which he was capable.

shrine-2 7 January 2000

Has it been over a decade since a really good movie musical has come out? "Evita" is an extended music video; and "The Bodyguard" is a stale idea from the seventies that Whitney Houston was expected to salvage with her singing. When you look back, the movie musical of recent note has taken shelter in the imagination of the animated film industry. (Disney put out almost all of the them.) But for a good musical with real actors, I can only remember movies like Jonathan Demme's "Stop Making Sense" which is more a concert movie than a musical; "Bizet's Carmen" which is more filmed opera; and "Amadeus," and that's going back more than fifteen years.

Where are the talents that could create new musical happenings in the movies? I'm not a fan of hip-hop or rap, and there's probably enough music videos playing the stuff to fill miles of film. But its place in big screen movies is ancillary--part of the score, or a director's afterthought. If there is a movie musical that suggests what possibilities the right people with a good idea and the talent can draw from the tradition, it's "Pennies from Heaven."

This is a stunning work of movie art. To find musical numbers this evocative, you need to go back to something like "Top Hat." It's a supernal pleasure just recalling Vernel Bagneris slow-dancing in a shower of scintillating tokens or how surprised I was at the dexterity of Christopher Walken's hoofing or how close to Steve Martin's Arthur I felt when he opens his mouth and out pops Connie Boswell's haunting refrain.

I cannot deny that I find the "reality" Dennis Potter has created jarring, and by the time, Arthur paints rings around his revolted wife Joan's nipples, you feel director Herbert Ross ("Goodbye, Mr. Chips") should have spared Joan--and us--this indignity with a more discreet camera setup. If their point is to slap us back to reality after a wonderful flight of fancy, it needs to be more pointed and funnier. It's not, and some people find the lurid aspects of Potter's creations insulting. It may explain why this movie was a flop at the box office. Maybe it was too coarse and too precious all at once.

But when Ken Adams can pull together some of the most serviceably beautiful sets ever to grace a movie; when Bob Mackie pulls out all reserves and furnishes the cast with some of the most sumptuous costumes they'll ever wear; when Marvin Hamlisch makes bright, smart choices of music memorabilia; when the incomparable Gordon Willis creates the kinds of visions that leave you glued to the screen; why quibble? The state of the musical may be to some on its last breath, but with "Pennies from Heaven" to look back on, it seems to be saying "All is not lost." If the right people come together, there are wonderful things to imagine on the horizon.

rosscinema 31 July 2003

This film in a way reminded me of the recent "Far from Heaven" in that it captures the spirit of an art form but doesn't ignore the harsh realities of life. Story is about a sheet music salesman named Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) and its set in the depression era. Parker is married to frigid Joan (Jessica Harper) and after being turned down repeatedly by her he leaves and says he's not coming back. On the road he picks up a homeless accordion player (Vernel Bagneris) and head into the next town. While there he spots a local school teacher named Eileen (Bernadette Peters) and is smitten at first sight. He courts her and one night he gets intimate but Eileen gets pregnant and has to leave her job at the school. Meanwhile, Arthur has gone back to his wife and they try to make their marriage work so she loans him some money to open a music store. Eileen has become desperate and goes into a sleazy bar and meets a pimp named Tom (Christopher Walken) and there she says her name from now on is Lulu. She becomes a prostitute and one night on the streets meets Arthur and they get back together and decide to run off together leaving Joan behind. Meanwhile, the accordion player see's a blind girl and rapes and kills her. The girl had talked to Arthur before and the cops follow the clues that lead to him so Arthur is now a wanted man. Film is directed by Herbert Ross who has a background in music and he brings a totally convincing look from the 30's and the small details in every shot add so much flavor to this film. The films cinematographer is the great Gordon Willis who shot many of Woody Allen's films as well as the "Godfather" trilogy. Willis shot this film in a grainy and dark mode to give the reality sequences of the film a stark contrast to some of the brighter moments that take place during the song and dance numbers. I thought the performances were arguably some of the best that some of these actors have ever done. Walken was taught at a young age to be a song and dance man and as far as I know its the only time he has shown his real talent on film. We already knew what a wonderful singer Peters is but the one scene that stood out for me was when she was in the bar and agreeing to Walkens character that she would be willing to do anything for a fin. It was a convincing job of desperation on her part and its a moving scene in the film. What more can you say about Martin? The first time he opens his mouth to lip sync a song you can't help but laugh but with Martin he makes it appear more than silly. It wouldn't have worked with another actor but Martin brings so much to his screen presence that it appears to be okay that he's doing this. The dance number that he and two other men perform in the film is nothing short of astonishing to watch. I can't imagine how much training he went through for that scene. As great as Walken's tap dance number was, this might be the most impressive dance number in the film. Martin's performance is just a revelation to watch. Yes, the films story is dark and dreary but thats because Ross wanted to make a more sarcastic musical. This film is a real achievement and should be viewed by all.

clanciai 17 May 2015

No matter how much you may hate the depressive story, you simply have to love it for the amazing charm of its ingenious innovative qualities of producing magic by the astounding imagination of the composition of the songs and their presentation. The dreariest of humdrum worlds in the exasperating void of the American depression in Chicago in the 1930s is suddenly whisked away by a song performed like in a dream of marvellous revelation and irresistible cheer. This is cinematographic magic at its best, mixing nightmare reality with the sublimation of poetry and music, and for me the most important character of all, hitting the nail and perfecting the moody setting of the drama, is the stammering Vernel Bagneris as The Accordion Man, a very secondary inferior by-character, but his appearance in all his pathetic misery completes and perfects the poetry. This is indeed a film to watch with very mixed feelings, but the dreamworks could never be more efficient than contrasted with the worst gutter visits of reality.

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