Sharps and Flats: Various artists

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Music from and inspired by the motion picture

Topics: Music,

Lyricist, composer and singer Johnny Mercer, on one of many return trips to his beloved hometown, was asked by a lady friend, “Johnny, don’t you think Savannah has a lot of po-tential?”

“Yeah, honey,” Mercer said, “and that’s the way we’re gonna leave it!”

Leaving Savannah’s potential untouched, it turns out, was too much to hope for. John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” known in Savannah as The Book, is now The Movie. Also The CD. And there will be, if there aren’t already, the postcards, T-shirts, coffee mugs … you name it.

Savannah, that grand old lady with outer garments of wrought-iron lace and flowing tresses of Spanish moss, is a secret place no longer. And the muffled sound you hear emanating from Bonaventure Cemetery is Johnny Mercer’s body spinning in its grave.

John Berendt was graduated from Harvard, worked as an editor at Esquire in the ’60s (it was he who shepherded William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet and John Sack through the tear gas during their fateful sojourn at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago), and later became editor of New York magazine. His book (published in 1994 and on the bestseller list ever since), while basically nonfiction, took liberties of chronology and motivation. The movie takes even more, including the reduction of four trials — Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams being the only man in the history of Georgia tried four times for the same murder — into one. But something had to be cut, since the original version lasted three hours and forty-five minutes.

The film opens with aerial views of the Savannah landscape and shots of the black voodoo woman Minerva, who seems to have had a profound insight into, and effect on, the action. Over this, the soundtrack, bizarrely, lays k.d. lang’s a cappella version of the Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael song “Skylark.” Matt Pierson, producer of the “Midnight” CD, said that song was chosen because it was “so evocative.” Maybe so, but not of Savannah, where you don’t see skylarks, or “valleys green with spring,” or, for that matter, “meadows in the mist.” Salt-water marshes in the mist, yes. There are many such faux pas throughout the film, marks of the incomprehension of outlanders, as when, early on in the film, John Lee Hancock’s script requires the lovely Alison Eastwood to knock on the door of the solitary Berendt character (called John Kelso, and played by John Cusack) and ask, “Do y’all have any ice?” Y’all is always plural, y’all.

Nevertheless, the movie is a lot of (strange) fun. The black transvestite Lady Chablis, who plays him/herself, is surprisingly effective (though he/she’s had, admittedly, a lifetime to research the part), and the film is another pleasantly weird one from Eastwood, among the few contemporary directors with the power to do basically whatever he pleases. “Midnight” is certainly better than Eastwood’s recent “Absolute Power,” which was based on the worst screenplay ever written by William Goldman. One of “Midnight’s” opening shots, of Mercer’s grave, wasn’t in the original script — Eastwood told me he’d added the grave as a sort of tribute. (You can’t hear Mercer spinning in it because lang covers up the sound with her butchering of “Skylark.”)

The CD “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture,” not a soundtrack CD per se, features a program of songs all associated with Mercer, some of them, like Kevin Spacey singing “That Old Black Magic” and Eastwood singing “Accentuate the Positive,” not in the movie. Eastwood has a record company, see, and Warner Brothers has all these recording artists under contract, many of them just standing around most of the time scratching where it itches, and there was this movie about Savannah, where Johnny Mercer comes from, so … Anyway, the CD begins with a track of lang singing “Skylark” (this time with musicians, thank God) similar to the one that closes the movie. If lang is a singer capable of rendering justice to Mercer and Carmichael, I’m a female African-American aviator. Her articulation and intonation are embarrassingly bad. The best thing I can say about her is that her timing is better than that of Cassandra Wilson, who spoils “Days of Wine and Roses” with her weird inability to keep within bars. Singers like Ray Charles and Shirley Horn get behind the beat and catch up — not Wilson, who’s playing tennis with the net down. When she wants to stick an extra bar and a half in, she does so, then goes on singing as if nothing disastrous had occurred. Why people let her get away with it is beyond me.

The CD contains 14 tracks. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau does a nice version of “Dream” and saxophonist Joshua Redman acquits himself capably in rendering “I’m an Old Cowhand.” Included are two new recordings by veteran performers, Joe Williams’ “Too Marvelous for Words” and Rosemary Clooney’s “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread).” Sad to say, they’re both well past their primes, as is Clint, assuming he had a prime as a singer. Alison Eastwood has been studying singing with Sue Raney, and her version of “Come Rain or Come Shine” is not bad. Spacey’s track is unexpectedly professional, though perhaps a bit too actorish, as if he’s channeling Sammy Davis Jr. Paula Cole’s “Autumn Leaves” would be better if shorter and straighter. Kevin Mahogany does “Laura” and Diana Krall does the great “Midnight Sun.” The trouble with these younger jazz-style singers is that their phrasing has been distorted by the melisma of the rock singers they’ve grown up listening to (Cole), or that they have little in the way of distinctive individual personalities (Mahogany, Krall). The best track by a young artist is Alison Krauss’ “This Time the Dream’s on Me.” She’s at least a real musician, with good time and intonation, and her rendition of the Mercer-Arlen classic is modest and inoffensive.

Recently I had a talk with native Georgian Ray Charles, who has long been a lover of Mercer’s music. I found it somehow reassuring, though sadly so, that Charles, like me, finds little to cheer him on the current music scene. According to Charles, Mercer, like Billie Holiday, Jo Stafford, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson, Lester Young, Clark Terry and a precious few others, could perform “one note and you know that’s who it is. I try to listen to the radio stations, I try to check on the music, because that is my profession, I wanna know what’s goin’ on in it, but I gotta tell you, I don’t see the kind of thing I’m talkin’ to you about in today’s age. I don’t see it. Now if you know some, you tell me, I’ll be happy to check it.”

When Warner Brothers made “To Have and Have Not,” Howard Hawks put the non-actor Carmichael in it and gave the picture some character. Eastwood has recently said that one artist who can unfailingly cheer him — and his 11-month-old daughter — is Mose Allison, the great Southern blues-jazz artist. These days, to do what Hoagy did in 1944, Mose would have to be signed to the label. Too bad. He could have given some coherence and style to “Midnight” — the picture and the CD.

Stanley Booth, like his friend Keith Richards, is in amazingly good shape considering what he's been through. His biography of Richards, "Keith: Standing in the Shadows," is published by St. Martin's Press. His first two books, "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones" and "Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South," will be reissued in the year 2000. Booth lives on the Georgia coast south of Savannah.

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