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Film Review: ‘Waltz for Monica’

Danish helmer Per Fly's glossy biopic of popular Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund quickly becomes a checklist of triumph-and-tragedy cliches.

With:

Edda Magnason, Sverir Gudnason, Kjell Bergqvist, Vera Vitali, Cecilia Ljung, Nadja Chrstiansson, Johannes Wanselow, Oskar Thunberg, David Hellenius, Fredrick Lindborg, Jorgen Thorssen, Andrea Ager-Hanssen, Randal D. Ingram, Amelia Fowler, Clinton Ingram. (Swedish, English dialogue)

Glossy biopic “Waltz for Monica” dramatizes the life of popular Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund, who played a major role in popularizing jazz in Scandinavia and beyond from the late 1950s onward. While watchable enough, Danish helmer Per Fly’s feature quickly becomes a conventional checklist of showbiz triumph-and-tragedy cliches, with emphasis on the downside: failed relationships, egomania, insecurity, booze, pills, et al. There’s not much depth discernible to the glamorous blonde at center stage here, despite a game acting debut by singer-songwriter Edda Magnason. Theatrical exposure outside Nordic countries will likely be minor, though the pic could attract home-format sales elsewhere.

In a rather dreary central hook, the woman born Eva Monica Nilsson is introduced with the chip on her shoulder already fully developed: Single mother to Eva-Lena (Nadja Christiansson), she is forever berated and belittled by her narrow-minded father (Kjell Bergqvist) for frequently abandoning her parental duties and provincial hometown to pursue what he considers a pipe dream.

At first, he’s right: Working in what’s considered a purely American medium, Swedish jazz musicians are hard-pressed to scrape together a living. A hoped-for big break turns humiliating when Eva is fired from a Manhattan club gig, simply because patrons find the sight of a beautiful white woman performing with an all-black backup trio too sexually suggestive for their pre-civil-rights-movement sensibilities. During this brief visit she’s also dissed by idol Ella Fitzgerald, who tells her to “sing about your own life” rather than “pretending to be somebody else” via U.S. blues and jazz covers.

Returning home, Eva takes that prickly advice to heart, asking well-known poet Beppe Solgers (Johannes Wanselow) to pen song lyrics in Swedish despite her record label’s initial skepticism. While true-blue bassist Sture (Sverir Gudnason) pines patiently from the sidelines, she accumulates a long backlog of husbands and lovers — notably “I Am Curious (Yellow)” director Vilgot Sjoman (Oskar Thunberg) — who all eventually tire of her emotional neediness and out-of-control partying. Meanwhile, her fortunes continue to rise, growing to encompass legit-stage spectaculars, TV specials, film roles (though these go unmentioned, even her turns in Jan Troell’s celebrated diptych “The Emigrants” and “The New Land”), and collaborations with jazz greats including legendary pianist Bill Evans.

Nonetheless, she’s so “goddamn lonely,” painted here as a classic oversensitive narcissist who drives away the people who really do love her. (Rather nonsensically, thorn-in-her-side Dad continues belittling her prospects even once she’s become a major star.) It’s not clear whether Fly or scenarist Peter Birro intended the character to be so off-putting, but regardless, the result is a lack of rooting interest in a peevish princess whose bridge-burning inevitably invites bottom-hitting melodrama.

Pic ends on a pat, happy note, bidding Zetterlund adieu well before scoliosis made her later life painfully difficult. (She died in a 2005 apartment fire at age 67.) While scrambling chronology at times to suit a rather standard narrative course, the slick pic capably reproduces the styles of the eras covered, though the lack of much psychological depth means there’s not enough going on beneath the colorful surface. Magnason doesn’t lip-synch to the subject’s original tracks but provides her own effective, similarly smoky and elegant vocals.

Film Review: 'Waltz for Monica'

Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (competing), Aug. 28, 2013. Running time: 111 MIN. Original title: "Monica Z"

Production:

(Sweden) A Film i Vast, Sveriges Television and Svensk Filmindustri presentation in association with the Swedish Film Institute of a Stellanova Film production. (International sales: Svensk Filmindustri, Stockholm.) Produced by Lena Rehnberg. Co-producer, Thomas Gammeltoft.

Crew:

Directed by Per Fly. Screenplay, Peter Birro. Camera (color, widescreen), Eric Kress; editor, Asa Mossberg; music, Peter Nordahl; music supervisor, Magnus Palmberg; production designer, Josefin Asberg; costume designer, Kicki Ilander; sound (Dolby 5.1), Tobias Ronnertz; sound designer, Hans Moller; assistant director, James Velasquez; casting, Linnea Roxeheim, Sara Tomkvist.

With:

Edda Magnason, Sverir Gudnason, Kjell Bergqvist, Vera Vitali, Cecilia Ljung, Nadja Chrstiansson, Johannes Wanselow, Oskar Thunberg, David Hellenius, Fredrick Lindborg, Jorgen Thorssen, Andrea Ager-Hanssen, Randal D. Ingram, Amelia Fowler, Clinton Ingram. (Swedish, English dialogue)

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