Pennies From Heaven (1981)
Steve Martin plays a song-salesman, traveling from town to town selling sheet music. He is deprived of sex, and has a psychotically prudish wife. On a business trip, he falls in love with a school teacher. He is miserable, impulsive, and a fanatic believer in the songs he sells. It goes downhill from there.
When I first saw Pennies From Heaven, after reading Doctor LaVey’s mention of it in The Secret Life of a Satanist, I had never actually liked a musical before. As a Satanist, I avoided musicals like they were religious proselytizers. Musicals all seem like they are trying to provide an escape for the audience. Certainly, all of cinema can be seen as “escapist” entertainment, but musicals seem to try to distract viewers from any sense of reality. Their characters sing and dance instead of solving their problems. Musicals actually cater to people who seek out pipe dreams.
But this is precisely why Pennies From Heaven is Satanic. It is the anti-musical. Instead of providing its audience with an escape from dreary circumstances, it uses music to elucidate the dreary circumstances, and the music is all the more evocative due to its purpose. It draws upon 70s-style cynicism and dovetails it with 30s-style cinema. The characters are constantly trying to escape their miseries, and use song and dance to express this. We, the audience members, are shown just how inept they are at affecting positive change in their lives. When the film does offer dreamy, comfortable illusions, as all musicals do, it is not long before they are shown to be preludes to sorrow.
The film uses period recordings as opposed to having the performers use their real voices. The performers are all lip-synching over the old songs. So it’s obvious to the viewer that the characters are not truly escaping anything; they are merely wanting to escape. The film is like a critique on the very escapist entertainment which it imitates.
Just in case you’re freaked out by the “H” word, the title is named after a pop song from the Thirties, and has nothing to do with the Christian concept of the word. The film promotes a “live it up” attitude toward life, not because redemption awaits, but because redemption is not worth waiting for. Take, for example, these lyrics from one of the film’s songs: “Life is just a bowl of cherries. Don’t take it serious. Life’s too mysterious. You work, you save, you worry so, but you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go.”
It’s quite exciting to hear lyrics of popular tunes of the 20s and 30s that are congruent with the Satanic philosophy. It becomes clear why LaVey loved the music of the film, when you see Christopher Walken, dressed to impress, strutting around a sleazy saloon with two floozies at his sides, singing, “Spring means just one thing to little lovebirds. We’re not above birds. Let’s misbehave!” There’s more innuendo to tickle your fancy in the song, “Love Is Good For Anything That Ales You”: “You don’t need pills. You need thrills.” I found the innocence of the songs to be quite stimulating when combined with their carnal subject matter. The film reminds us just how ribald these pop songs were. Bernadette Peters is priceless when she teases Steve Martin during a music scene. She bounces on his lap while lip-synching to “I Want to Be Bad” by Helen Kane. “If it’s naughty to ruse your lips, shake your shoulders and shake your hips, let a lady confess: I want to be bad.”
The music of Pennies From Heaven is extraordinarily evocative, and the story is strikingly sad. It’s one of those brilliant mistakes that come out of Hollywood far too infrequently.
[- Miles Jacobsen]