Dick Tracy never had a chance — and it’s a shame, too, because Warren Beatty’s 1990 comic book flick is tragically underrated.
The movie left audiences going “Huh?” in part because of Touchstone Pictures’ lousy marketing. Touchstone had hoped to ride the superhero wave launched the year before with Tim Burton’s Batman, with all the usual toy and fast food promotional tie-ins.
But Dick Tracy wasn’t a recently-reimagined (darkly so, by Frank Miller) comic book superhero for kids and teens; he was a comic strip cop trapped (delightfully so) in the 1930s. Touchstone might have had better luck marketing Geritol to surfer dudes.
Leave aside the facts that Touchstone got the marketing wrong and that Beatty directed a big-budget movie with a small potential audience, and what you’re left with is a solidly entertaining and visually arresting comic book movie. And perhaps uniquely, a comic book movie which organically looks like the comic book it came from. Even the color scheme is a perfect reproduction of the three-color printing process from the funny pages. The makeup jobs on the bad guys look as though Beatty waved a magic wand over a comic strip and made it come life. Al Pacino’s Big Boy Caprice, Dustin Hoffman’s Mumbles, and Paul Sorvino’s Lips Manlis make the movie work more than Beatty does as Tracy — in no small part due to the makeup by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. They won an Oscar for their work.
Maybe Touchstone thought that having Madonna on hand as nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney would be enough to draw the kids in — which brings us, nearly, to tonight’s song.
Yes, Dick Tracy had Madonna, but it had Madonna singing showtunes. Gloriously, outrageously, incongruously singing showtunes.
Madonna. Via Stephen Sondheim. Brilliant!
Brilliant… except… what young Madonna fan wanted to see Madonna sing showtunes?
Damn few, if box office receipts are anything to judge by.
But the resulting soundtrack — I’m Breathless: Music From And Inspired By “Dick Tracy” — is one of only three Madonna albums that ever enticed me to listen to all the way through. And now and then, I still do.
Tonight’s pick, “More,” has all the clever lyrical and musical tricks you’d expect from Sondheim. It also has a much better vocal performance than you’d expect from Madonna. I mean, she’s actually pretty darn good here, proving that she has the ability to rise up to better material — when she can be bothered to look for better material.
Here’s a bit of that better material:
Once upon a time
I had plenty of nothing which was fine with me
Because I had rhythm, music, love
The sun, the stars and the moon above
Had the clear blue sky and the deep blue sea
That was when the best things in life were free
Then time went by
And now I got plenty of plenty which is fine with me
‘Cause I still got love, I still got rhythm
But look at what I got to go with ‘em
Those last two lines still make me smile, even after a quarter of a century. And so unabashedly materialistic — you think Sondheim would bother writing it today?
While you enjoy the song, I’m going to cue up Dick Tracy on Apple TV and enjoy it in full HD glory. If you’ve never seen it, not only is DT an underrated gem, but it also marks the return of Pacino to his scenery-chewing glory, after spending the ’80s mostly in the wilderness.
Check it out.