Why Gene Kelly stands the test of time and continues to inspire.
A classic is something that never goes out of style, something whose quality and aesthetic appeal are indisputable and unaffected by trends. It is a work of art, which has the ability to endure and affect culture, years or eons after its creation, because it speaks of, as well as adds to the human experience.
I only truly discovered Gene Kelly and his work a couple of years ago, but I discovered him at just the right time. As I was beginning a new chapter in my life on both a personal and professional level, Kelly and his films gave me a second wind. As a writer/director myself, I found inspiration and mentorship in the life and work of this spectacular, unapologetically romantic, courageous creative genius.
As an artist, he taught me to be bold and brave, and that you don’t need extravagant effects to dazzle an audience… That when the words fail or become redundant, you can make magic out of a newspaper and a creaking floorboard on an empty stage, like he did in ‘Summer Stock’.
As a person, he taught me to stand up straight; shoulders out, with feet steady on the ground before attempting flight. He taught me to fall and rise gracefully, because when you do, then the fall becomes part of the dance.
In every dance number, he makes you chirp and gleam like the children in ‘I Got Rhythm’, watching in awe as this magical, every-day man with a child’s soul, incorporates his surroundings to tell stories, and breathe life into items and locations, revealing the magic of art, of simplicity and of life’s little joys. He makes you feel like a participant, a part of the whole, as he seemingly extends to you a generous ‘Invitation to the Dance’ he danced almost seven decades ago. His mission was to make people feel joy through his talents and he achieved just that.
The way he handles his body makes us, the viewers, think that our physical existence is a glorious thing and we are more capable than we think. He expected that of people as he expected it of himself… always striving to be more, to do more, to innovate, to astound.
If he wasn’t the best at something, he would work tirelessly on improving or excelling. He was a polymath who devoured books and wanted to know everything about the world. If people around him spoke a different language, he would learn it, or he would dance it…
‘So we give up, huh?’, says a timid Clarence, played by Frank Sinatra in ‘Anchors Aweigh’ when he faces a setback on his mission.
‘So we DON’T give up, huh!’ reassures a bright and fraternal Joe Brady, played by Kelly.
In those words, you hear Kelly himself. He would not give up, never the defeatist. He would ‘Dig, dig, dig,dig’ and work with dedication and perseverance, both as a director and a performer, always attempting the fresh, the new and the groundbreaking, no matter how the landscape changed unfavourably for musical stars.
When it came to the shortcomings he could do nothing about, he used his creativity and choreography to mask them. You’d never realize that Cyd Charisse was that much taller than him in heels in the ‘Broadway Melody’, or Kay Kendall in ‘You’re just too too’. Sure, there is something there to be said about insecurities and ego but you can’t help but applaud his ingenuity.
When Gene Kelly passed away, Liza Minelli said: “For the rest of my life, whenever it rains, I will think of him and smile.”
I believe that is true for many people around the globe. Every time it rains, even those not so familiar with his work, hear Gene Kelly in their mind, and smile. Perhaps, even, when they see a puddle in the road, they don’t walk around it, but instead splash into it with an amateur time-step splattering mud all over their clothes, like the children that they are. And it’s worth it.
That’s a classic!
I was about 5 years old when Gene Kelly passed away on this day, in 1996, yet he has had an immense effect on my life and my work. If he was worried about his legacy, he can rest easy that it safely lives on, through his art and through the work of countless performers and creators he has inspired. Great art bleeds into other art and lives on endlessly. That’s a classic!
We call certain people ‘legends’ because they are singular and their influence on lives and culture far exceeds their lifespan. One can even say that they have earned their immortality.
It makes me think that maybe this way, through the things we create and the people we touch, there is no past or present, and that life doesn’t end, that we all exist simultaneously, in a wonderful universe bursting of pastel colours and music and dreams and stories of joys, sorrows and love, our souls interacting and intertwining infinitely.
Kelly emits energy when he dances and I do speak in the present tense. Energy is a palpable, living thing that transcends time and space. When Gene Kelly is on screen, he is ‘Like a breath of Spring’, and we have yet to grow tired of Spring…