EW reviews two versions of ''Pennies from Heaven.'' Give the edge to the 1978 TV miniseries

By Sam Adams
August 06, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Pennies From Heaven

  • Movie

EW reviews two versions of ”Pennies from Heaven”

No one knew the potency of cheap music better than writer Dennis Potter, who explored the underside of big-band pop in the 1978 miniseries. A down-on-his-luck sheet-music salesman whose wife prefers tea to sex, Arthur Parker (Bob Hoskins) is lured away from home by the siren song of the gramophone, but finds that life at 78 rpm isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Arthur’s dreams (and less noble sentiments) are expressed musically, as he poses as a songwriter to seduce small-town schoolteachers. Watching the unglamorous characters mime period pop hits is like rediscovering a childhood ditty and realizing the words held adult secrets all along.

Directed by Herbert Ross, the 1981 film version revives the glory of big-screen musicals, even as it recalls the Depression-era squalor they helped audiences forget. Gordon Willis’ rapturous photography trumps the series’ shoestring video, but the movie is as flat and shiny as an LP, with a hole in the center to boot. Still, Christopher Walken’s ”Let’s Misbehave” tap dance is masterful, and if Steve Martin can’t match Hoskins in plumbing Arthur’s perverse depths, you believe it when he says, ”They tell the truth, songs do.” TV version: A-; Movie: B+

TV: In their commentary, producer Kenith Trodd and director Piers Haggard trash the film but allow that the musical numbers are ”bloody marvelous.” Movie: Spotty commentary by critic Peter Rainer and a chummy but uninformative cast-and-crew reunion.

Pennies From Heaven

  • Movie
  • Unrated
  • 517 minutes
  • Bob Hoskins
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  • Pennies From Heaven