Ah, yes: Anthony Newley. And ah, yes but even more so: Hieronymus Merkin. How small can a minority be before you have to find a new word to describe them?
An experiment: Take everyone in Britain and say 'Anthony Newley' to them. The majority, I suspect, will not know who you are talking about.
Then take the minority who do, and ask them for an opinion. The majority, I suspect, will not have one.
Then take the minority who do, and ask them what it is. The majority, I suspect, will express more than typical distaste.
Then take the minority who like him, whittle that down to the extreme minority who love him, and ask them what they think of Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969).
The majority, I suspect, will say it's terrible.
That leaves perhaps the smallest minority of all time.
But nice to meet you, all the same.
I've had a thing for Newley ever since I saw him as a guest star in the tv series Fame and instantly recognised an entity utterly different from his surroundings. I asked my mother who he was and learned he was an old singing star with a spectacularly false performing style. I was hooked from then on.
We who love him understand why others find him so grating, yet are transfixed by the very qualities that others find so repellent. (People who like Barbra Streisand must be in the grip of something similar.) With his massive eyebrows, gurning facial expressions and flapping hands, his is one of the most uninhibitedly weird stage presences ever. Ditto his tremulous voice, alternately howling and confiding, with Hollywood schmaltz suddenly giving way to glass-cracking cockney. The songs, many of which he wrote, are odd mixes of old-style crooning, obscure jokes and gloomy introspection. He did movies, Broadway and Las Vegas. There was nothing he could not do, and all he did he did uniquely. I saw him live only once, as Scrooge in the Bricusse musical: no performer on any stage has ever impressed me as much.
For years I dreamed of this notorious film, an alternately self-worshipping and self-excoriating autobiographical art house musical extravaganza, starring the great man, written by the great man, produced and directed and scored by the great man, with his wife playing his wife, his kids playing his kids and Milton Berle playing the devil, in a wild and overblown mix of allegorical fantasy, X-rated sex scenes and rousing musical numbers. It was after a decade and more of imagining it that I finally got my hands on a copy - how could it not disappoint? The answer: somehow. For against all the odds it did not. It is everything they say, and more, more, more.
Hieronymus Merkin is undoubtedly the most controversial project with which Newley was ever associated. Slated or dismissed out of hand even by his staunch supporters and, to the rest, one of the great, bona fide disasters of film history, for Newley fans it is frequently criticised as pretentious, overblown, cynical and tasteless.
Yet it is also, inarguably, a work into which Newley poured an awful lot of himself, not just in terms of the level of commitment required of an actor-writer-songwriter-director but also in the often searingly revealing autobiographical elements of the screenplay. If you like the guy you simply have to accept that, whatever reservations you have about it, it is clearly a magnum opus, one of the most serious, revealing and personal works Newley ever created.
Parts of it are indeed naïve, and others try too hard to impress; nonetheless it's a remarkably ambitious and confident leap into yet another field of creativity for Newley.
It's essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand the man behind the music, and it's unlike any other film Hollywood has ever made. What on earth did Universal make of it when he showed it to them? On what pretext did he get the gig in the first place? Hollywood really was flailing in the late sixties: it is a mark of just how much Easy Rider had walloped the place that projects like this and Myra Breckinridge and The Last Movie and Zabriskie Point and The Seven Minutes even got a hearing, still more a green light. Yet even in such company, it is Newley's film that emerges, triumphantly, as the weirdest, least fathomable, most preposterous. It's fantastic, in every sense.
And it’s got terrific music. The songs in Merkin are as great as any he ever wrote and performed, mixing serious autobiographical lyrics with tunes to set you whistling for days as only he could. From ‘Oh What a Son of a Bitch I Am’ (a jaunty confession of indiscretions past and predicted, with Newley merrily hailing himself as outsinning Dracula and Jack the Ripper), to the simple and incredibly poignant ‘Lullaby’, and from the haunting, indeed disturbing ‘Sweet Love Child’ to the raucous ‘On the Boards’, the film displays something like its creator’s full range of mood and expression in the medium of popular song.
When Newley the director finds visuals to match the music the film can be stunning: witness Merkin at the top of a mountain bellowing ‘I’m All I Need’.
A man is alone from the day he's born
To the day that they close his eyes.
And if anyone tells you anything else,
He's telling you a pack of lies.
I need no God, I believe no dreams,
And it seems that I've always known
That we laugh and cry,
That we hope and sigh
And we live and we die
The song, like most in this collection, exists in a variety of versions, and while the expression of atheism in the soundtrack version is clear enough other recordings go even further (‘There is no God, and if any poor clod thinks otherwise he’s a fool…’).
As with Newley’s theatre work these songs of great immediacy and appeal are inserted into an audacious allegorical framework, which here takes the form of the recollections of an entertainer undergoing a mid-life crisis.
This many-layered structure begins with Newley/Merkin telling the story of his life to his family on a beach next to an enormous pile of ephemera relating to events in his life. This then leads into reconstructions, songs, fantasies and deviations, frequently interrupted by other sequences that fictitiously depict the film itself being shot, argued over and changed even as we watch it. The result is a mess of bizarre imagery and strange ideas, shot through with autobiographical reminiscences of Newley’s/Merkin’s marriages, career, fantasies, fears and even specific events such as the death of his first child.
This is not to say that Newley was altogether happy about the film being viewed in this way; in promotional interviews he went out of his way to stress that it was not an autobiography, merely a personal fantasy informed inevitably by what he called the flotsam and jetsam of his life. Such protestations must ultimately ring hollow in the light of the work itself, however, and in particular the film’s take on what was at the time his ongoing marriage to Joan Collins would on its own have given him ample reason to want to distance himself from the film’s naked honesty. (Joan Collins has cited the film as contributing to their break-up.)
It is hard, also, not to detect at least as much self-doubt as hubris in Newley’s delightfully bizarre attempt to describe the film to a BBC interviewer in 1969:
It is not an autobiography… I guess it’s more like a poem, really, in as much that a lot of it is pantomime and visual. And don’t be put off by the ‘pantomime’; I can’t think of any other word to describe the sort of thing that Charlie Chaplin did, which was just pictures. It’s a musical too; it has music to it. It’s a story with music is what it is but that’s so dry. But that’s what I’d like people to call it.
But a later suggestion in the same interview showed how thoroughly Newley viewed the techniques of European art cinema as a means of unfettered personal expression:
I think the movie is moving into a much more personal area…I’d like to be part of that brigade of men who create pieces for the cinema, and direct them and sometimes appear in them, that are very personal things. You probably couldn’t have made them twenty years ago.
Parts of the film seem almost too honest, too painful, too cruel. The occasional excesses of style and lapses of taste also suggest inexperience, unchecked by any collaborator with the talent and influence to hold him back. The film is deliberately confusing and bizarre, and in sequences such as that in which Merkin confesses to his love of underage girls (and again in the number, cheerfully described as utterly irrelevant within the film itself, about a princess who falls in love with a donkey) the lack of a more sober collaborator is especially apparent.
But what the film occasionally lacks in discipline it more than atones for in sheer invention and idiosyncrasy. As always with Newley, it is his total confidence that strikes you first. After all, it’s not like he’d directed a film before, and here, suddenly given total control over a project as writer-director-star, he has done anything but play safe.
His influences are obvious, often embarrassingly so, but he never tried to keep them a secret, admitting freely at the time that the film was his bid to join the pantheon of European auteurs that included Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and – a reflection of the times - Claude Lelouch (whose reputation for total autonomy Newley especially envied). Taking Fellini’s love of theatrical fantasy, Antonioni’s moody chops and Bergman’s poetic symbolism, Newley blends all three and adds dashes of his own gifts: good jokes, great songs and a sense of genuine melancholy; a kind of painful nostalgia.
The film’s biggest fault – for audiences other than those who simply don’t like Anthony Newley and for whom the experience of watching it will be one akin to that of physical torture – is that it is impossible to achieve a clear understanding of what kind of film it is unless you’ve lived exactly the life Newley himself did. The allusions to and recreations of British music hall and variety would have meant very little in America, and the reflections on the Hollywood showbiz scene would have had similarly little resonance in Britain. As for the bit with him watching a clockwork doll of himself getting it on with a Playboy centrefold... it's a toss-up as to who would understand that least.
It's a film for an audience that didn’t exist, or if they did existed in such small numbers as to make the film a suicidal proposition at the box office. Not only that, but most people simply don’t like Anthony Newley, and wouldn't have turned out no matter what he'd come up with. Pitched in part to the kind of people who like musicals, in part to the Easy Rider counterculture, in part to those who like foreign art films it satisfied none but those who like exactly what Newley likes: arty images and old show tunes, heavy sentimentality and deft irony, experimentalism and old-fashioned showbiz, music hall jokes and meditations on the meaning of life.
That's Newley himself, and me; anybody else?