Sunday, June 5, 2011

Forgotten Movie Songs #19: "The sun whose rays" from TOPSY-TURVY

This is, of course, not a song that was written for the movies, though it IS one of the cinema's most moving songs. Originally, it is the premier piece set smack dab in the middle of British librettist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan's magnum opus The Mikado, which opened in London in 1885 to astounding applause and then became the team's signature work. Mike Leigh's majestic, lovable, moving 1999 film Topsy-Turvy follows in painstaking detail the story of this production's troubled history. It at once highlights the professional expertise and squabbling contention bandied between Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner), and also underlines all the varied facets of board work that stage veteran Leigh himself loves the most, and has transferred to the film world: the peculiar casting, the exalted shaping of story and blocking, the exacting editing and note-giving (there's an uncommonly vibrant scene in the middle of Topsy-Turvy that has Broadbent's Gilbert running through lines with three members of The Mikado's cast, stopping and starting them with detailed directions; I think that this is EXACTLY how the mysterious Leigh works in connection with his own acting crews). Topsy-Turvy is still, and always will be, a tribute to the stage while remaining a categorically cinematic experience.

"The sun whose rays" is a song given to The Mikado's heroine, Yum-Yum, who's the ultra-vain object of desire that sets Gilbert's plot aflame. In Topsy-Turvy (and I'm not giving anything vital away here), the gorgeous song devoted to Yum-Yum's own beauty is saved for this film's VERY final moments (this is the sort of inventiveness that earned Leigh's scripting much acclaim). At the beginning of the clip below, we see actress Shirley Henderson portraying another actress, Leonora Braham, as she stares at a mirror, believing Gilbert's words, and practicing her lines (likely under the influence of the powerful opiate laudanum). This she does right before her Yum-Yum delivers a rafter-shaking, throat-wringing performance, on one night out of a rare many. The whole film is filled with blithe,
back-and-forth comparisons between the actors and the characters they portray while at work; in this way, Topsy-Turvy becomes the actor-worshipping Mike Leigh's most personal film, even if it seems the one that's furthest away from his own experience (Leigh's movies are almost always set his most contemporary London, amongst the doings of the lower- to middle-classes).

On this site, I've made no bones about thinking that Mike Leigh is the greatest filmmaker walking the planet. Topsy-Turvy may very well be the ultimate proof. I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to convince those who haven't seen it of its worth: if you're reading this, uneducated as I was when first seeing the film, and haven't even considered spending the time on watching Topsy-Turvy, you'll feasibly now know enough to go and check the film out, regardless of whether you know who Gilbert and Sullivan are, or whether or not you think you'll enjoy learning a valued lesson. At the same time, if you don't know me from Adam, are you're open-minded and are as cleared for being taught about new things as I still hope I am, I offer this recommendation thanks to Mike Leigh and his crew--including the gorgeous, sensational Shirley Henderson, with her irrepressible voice that's resolutely comparable to none other.

The piece is largely known as "The sun whose rays" (as is the wont of all operatic musical entries; all list their individual songs' first lines as the song titles, just as is practiced with the titles of poems). Its jovial, satirical lyrics are by William S. Gilbert; its imperial music is by Arthur Sullivan; and it's performed by a phenomenal Shirley Henderson. The sequence is elegantly staged in one single long shot by cinematographer Dick Pope and director Mike Leigh, the latter of which now stands as the world's #1 lifelong Gilbert and Sullivan fan. As such, he crafted this indispensable movie called Topsy-Turvy a little more than a century after The Mikado first appeared onstage. As for the song itself: It should be requisite practice for woman or girl who desires to sing onstage or off.

The sun whose rays
Are all ablaze
With ever-living glory,
Does not deny
His majesty--
He scorns to tell a story!
He won't exclaim,
"I blush for shame,
So kindly be indulgent."
But, fierce and bold,
In fiery gold,
He glories all effulgent!

I mean to rule the earth,
As he the sky--
We really know our worth,
The sun and I!
I mean to rule the earth as he the sky.
We really know our worth,
The sun and I.

Observe his flame,
That placid dame,
The moon's Celestial Highness;
There's not a trace
Upon her face
Of diffidence or shyness:
She borrows light
That through the night
Mankind may all acclaim her.
And, truth to tell,
She lights up well
So I, for one, don't blame her.

Ah, pray make no mistake,
We are not shy;
We're very wide awake,
The moon and I!
Ah, pray make no mistake, we are not shy.
We're very wide awake,
The moon and I.

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