The Gene Krupa Story
Columbia/Tri-Star // Unrated // $24.96 // May 18, 2004
Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 14, 2004
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Gene Krupa was the first musician to take the drummer from a nearly mechanical role in bands and bring the instrument to the forefront. Not content to sit in the back and merely keep time, Krupa's natural skill and stage presence made him a superstar, popularizing the concept of the drum solo and selling out theaters nationwide fronting his own orchestra. Of course, a wholesome, idyllic rise to stardom doesn't make for much of a drama, and Krupa's life, at least as chronicled here, was marred by infidelity, fast living, and accusations of drug use that derailed his life and career. The Gene Krupa Story, originally released in 1959, followed a pair of other inventively-titled jazz bios from earlier in the decade, The Glenn Miller Story and The Benny Goodman Story. The movie isn't timid about taking liberties with reality, but the end result is an entertaining, if somewhat dated, drama about passion and deciding what matters the most in life.

The Gene Krupa Story opens with a teenaged Krupa (Sal Mineo) having a spat with his parents over his future. They want him to take a more respectable path in life, specifically priesthood. Krupa is only interested in drumming, and his father's indignance only seems to fuel him further. Although his band's gigs were modest at best, they succeeded in attracting the attention of several women, including the shy, cute Ethel Maguire (Susan Kohner), with whom he's almost instantly smitten. An unfortunate turn of events steers Krupa away from the kit for a year, but the temptation proves irresistable. Ethel, now dating Krupa's former bandmate Eddie Sirota (James Darren), inspires Krupa to make the move from Chicago to New York in the hopes of making it there. Success doesn't come as quickly as anticipated. Krupa refuses to play the sorts of speakeasys and dives they frequented back home, and he winds up reliant on Ethel for financial support. The gamble does eventually pay off -- Krupa manages to simultaneously floor three famous bandleaders at a party, and his rise from there is almost meteoric. As he becomes more and more successful, Krupa continually pushes Ethel away to make time for schmoozing with celebrities and reporters. To Krupa, there's no point in being famous if he can't take advantage, and although he claims to love Ethel, he can't make room in his life for just one woman. Once he hits the top -- fronting a band of his own, unheard of for someone of his age and a drummer, no less -- there's little place else to go but down. Framed for marijuana possession, Krupa fades away, imprisoned for months and eventually playing strip clubs anonymously in Philadelphia. A movie like this isn't going to end on such a sour note, and I'll leave it to your imagination to guess what happens next.

I've long had a fascination with drumming, and that was the chief appeal for me of The Gene Krupa Story. The movie doesn't take the cheap route and cut around its leading man, substituting a stand-in when the camera closes in on the drums. No, Sal Mineo sells the idea that he's Gene Krupa. His drumming is almost manic in its speed and intensity, and in some of his solos, Mineo becomes a barely discernable blur. Although even seasoned drummers don't always capture well on film -- try watching a few music videos and pay attention to how infrequently the drumming on-screen matches the music -- I found Mineo largely convincing throughout. Strangely, it's in the handful of scenes where the drumming isn't as frenetic where I didn't buy into it quite as well. None other than Krupa himself provided the actual sound of the drums heard on the soundtrack, and Mineo reportedly studied under him for the role. It's Mineo's incredible performance behind the kit that accounts for the success of the movie, and if not for him, The Gene Krupa Story would just be another forgotten biopic of a celebrity few people pay much thought to anymore.

Mineo also has to rise about the mediocrity of some of the supporting players, particularly the elderly folks who play his parents. I found myself continually wincing at their stiff, stilted acting in the scene that opens the movie, but once the premise is established and concentrates around a few key characters, those sorts of concerns quickly fade away. Mineo, unduly loyal girlfriend Susan Kohner, and best friend James Darren are all more than capable, even managing to sell a plot centered around two familiar formulas, the rise/fall/rebirth of fame and finding/losing/reclaiming love. The arc is predictable but thankfully not dull, although Krupa's fall at the hand of marijuana doesn't carry quite the same resonance now as it did half a century ago. Krupa's painted as a once-likeable character who becomes so infatuated with success and its trappings that he disregards most everything else. The way it's played, though, the descent seems at least a little more believable than a cartoonish Reefer Madness plummet, and as loathsome as he becomes at his nadir, Krupa still manages to evoke some sympathy in the hopes that he'll straighten himself out somewhere in the third act. Kohner is note-perfect as the underappreciated hometown girl who sticks by her love in the face of all logic, and her facial expressions while facing rejection after rejection would be heartbreaking if I weren't so hopelessly jaded.

Columbia/Tri-Star clearly invested a fair amount of time and effort into remastering The Gene Krupa Story for this DVD. I wasn't impressed enough with the movie itself to suggest shelling out twenty bucks on a purchase sight-unseen, but it's worth a rental.

Video: The original presentation of The Gene Krupa Story is preserved in anamorphic widescreen on this DVD, retaining its black and white appearance and theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The source material must have been in immaculate condition, judging by the near-flawless transfer. Although a few brief, scattered shots exhibit mild grain and light speckling, the bulk of the film is clean and razor-sharp. Detail and dynamic range are both impressive, and black levels are deep and inky once the title sequence -- a camera plummeting towards Krupa from above -- passes. Those rare moments that do look dated tend to be establishing shots, only once creeping into the narrative, and even then just for a couple of seconds around the 0:56:30 mark that appear to have been culled from an entirely different source. It's really heartening to see that a movie that I'd think would be easily overlooked like this can look so great.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural audio, encoded at a bitrate of 192Kbps, is every bit as solid. Music is, of course, often the emphasis. Each instrument is distinct and doesn't become muddled in the mix, although in some numbers, the upright bass seems less prominent than it really ought to be in comparison to the rest of the band. The crystalline highs of the vocalists and the pounding lows of Krupa on the skins are both represented well. Dialogue comes through cleanly without any concerns.

The Gene Krupa Story is closed captioned, and no subtitles or alternate soundtracks have been provided.

Supplements: The DVD opens with a set of full-frame trailers for Gilda, It Should Happen to You, and You Were Never Lovelier. These can be skipped with a press of the "Menu" button, and all three are also available through the "Previews" option on the main menu. There is only one menu, incidentally, which is static and enhanced for widescreen displays. The movie itself has been divided into twelve chapters, and the DVD comes packaged in a keepcase with no insert.

Conclusion: The soundtrack -- particularly the drumming, predictably, considering that the title is The Gene Krupa Story -- is phenomenal, and the visual and audio aspects of its release on DVD are first-rate. Though some of the performances and dramatic aspects haven't aged well over the past 45 years, The Gene Krupa Story is still worth picking up at least as a rental for those with a passion for drumming.

Related Titles: Hudson Music's Swing, Swing Swing includes, among quite a few other things, vintage footage of Krupa's drumming and Sal Mineo plugging The Gene Krupa Story in an appearance on I've Got a Secret.

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