Published December 1, 1999
Cradle Will Rock is a huge disappointment—nothing but a vanity project for Tim Robbins, who wrote and directed it. It’s a great shame, not only because Robbins showed that he was capable of something much better in Dead Man Walking a few years ago, but also because it has an all-star cast (including Vanessa Redgrave, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon, John and Joan Cusack, John Turturro and Emily Watson) and enough vitality to fuel three epic presentations of the struggles of Depression-era artists and performers. In fact, its excess of vitality is part of its problem. Robbins appears to think that a souped-up, Front Page style of verbal banter with everybody stepping on everybody else’s lines to the point of conversational chaos is an adequate substitute for wit. Alas, it is not. In fact, it makes the general witlessness of the dialogue even more noticeable.
Even worse is the fact that the real-life composer, Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), an impromptu performance of whose singspiel opera, Cradle Will Rock, comes at the climax of this movie with the same name, is an obvious second-rater, a Kurt Weill wannabe whom Robbins is asking us to venerate presumably for political reasons. Blitzstein was both a Communist and a homosexual, which is a twofer in the kinds of circles in which Mr. Robbins moves, but these recommendations would be inadequate to mask his musically and dramatically weak and derivative opera, even if its subject matter were not the crudest sort of 1930s Commie agitprop. Even Brecht would have blushed to hear the workers’ leader say to the bosses’ minion who has attempted to buy him off: “You take that money—and buy yourself a big piece of toast!”
Whether or not Robbins himself thinks this a crushing put-down, his decision to have it greeted with loud applause and cheers from the radicalized WPA actors and musicians in the audience—cheers which are redoubled for the punchline, “When the storm breaks, the cradle will fall!”—only calls attention to the artificiality and propagandistic intentions of the whole three-ring circus. Intercut with the performance of the opera are scenes of the destruction of a mural by Diego Rivera (Rubén Blades) in Rockefeller Center because Nelson Rockefeller (Mr Cusack) unaccountably disapproved of its celebration of Lenin and a masked ball in which the toffs and capitalists, including Rockefeller, are got up to look like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Oh, please! How could Robbins have imagined that such stuff would play at the end of the 1990s?