August 16, 2014

The time Robin Williams sang opera

Robin Williams, baritone
The entertainment world will be processing the tragic death of Robin Williams for some time to come. It's difficult to accept that such a vivid and vibrant life-force can be suddenly and shockingly extinguished like Shakespeare's "brief candle".

This is an opera blog, so I've been thinking about the film Mrs. Doubtfire since the opening sequence features Williams' character singing a big chunk of the aria "Largo al factotum" from The Barber of Seville. I thought that bit was not really effective, and my reasons might shed light on how seldom films allowed us to see all of the actor's genius.

If you ask me, Robin Williams was at his very best in the animated Aladdin from the Disney studios. In this case, the producers were willing to unleash his comedic talent and let him run wild as the Genie. Without the need to adhere to the realities of more scripted comedies with their realistic cinematography, Williams let loose a torrent of improvisation that was manic, helter-skelter, and truly funny. The Disney animators Job #1 was to match him visually, with rapid-fire images keeping pace with the pure volcanic invention of his mind. It worked. In case you've forgotten how well it worked, take a look at this feature from ABC News. After a minute or so of updates concerning the details of his passing, there is a revealing interview with producers and animators of Aladdin demonstrating how they managed to keep pace with his imagination.

Now consider the animated portion of Doubfire, as seen in this YouTube clip. What a clever idea this must have appeared to whoever thought of it: "Hey, how about this: Robin sings that "Figaro Figaro Figaro" number from that Rossini opera for a Warner Brothers-style cartoon. We see him singing it in a studio - in Italian! - while the animation plays in front of him. How cool, am I right? This'll be great!"

Instead, it was a mildly amusing miscalculation. Consider: singing an aria by Rossini, in Italian, with orchestra, is about as scripted as it gets. It's pretty much the opposite of volcanic, manic, helter-skelter improv. The animation may have been clever (although actually pretty standard stuff), but the point is this:

Robin Williams was following the animation, rather than the animation following him. The result, as far as I was concerned, was a middle-aged man standing in front of microphones, singing Rossini badly. You'll pardon me if I don't find bad opera singing to be hi-larious.

The rest of the film made better use of his gifts, there's no question about that. Still, the "Largo al factotum" moment left me feeling uncomfortable, as though something was off-key. When a comedian is a brilliant improviser, we want him riffing ecstatically, not reciting Shakespearean sonnets or reading Walt Whitman or singing a Schubert song cycle.

To use a painting analogy, we want him splattering paint on a canvas, not carefully doing a paint-by-numbers sunset.

I join the rest of the world in mourning his passing. Over the next few weeks I'll make a point of re-visiting my favorite Robin Williams films: The Birdcage, Good Morning, Viet Nam, and even the fascinating drama Insomnia. 

Oh, and if you want to hear what a really gifted singer he could be with the right material, forget Figaro and listen to this clip of "You ain't never had a friend like me", the Genie's song from Aladdin. And I mean LISTEN - that is, don't even watch the screen and be distracted by the images. Turn up the volume and marvel at a perfectly good Broadway-style baritone, used with an endless array of vocal colors, incredible energy, remarkable stamina and excellent intonation.

Rest in peace.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you about the Rossini bit from "Doubtfire" - but I think that was the point of the scene. Robin's character was stuck doing a paying job that didn't highlight his talents... his job was indeed to "follow the animation, rather than the animation following him" - and that's why it (purposely) didn't work. Toward the end of the scene Robin's character starts improvising and gets in trouble for it. His character (and most likely Robin himself) hated having to confine himself to mere mimicry - and that was the point of the scene. I honestly think they didn't want it to be funny.