Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland take the baton and run with it in Strike Up the Band, a rousing high school musical that showcases the dynamic duo's incomparable triple-threat talent. Vim, verve, heart, songs galore, and plenty of Busby Berkeley ingenuity distinguish this wholesome tale about a group of resourceful teens determined to take their school band to a Chicago competition. A glorious 4K restoration yields a dazzling video transfer, while robust lossless audio makes this musical sing like never before. No one can put on a show like Rooney and Garland, and Strike Up the Band reminds us why they remain such a lovable and oh-so-iconic Hollywood pair. Highly Recommended.
The Wizard of Oz made Judy Garland a star, but Babes in Arms, released later the same year, cemented not only her celebrated status, but also a partnership with co-star Mickey Rooney that would spawn three more films and a close friendship that lasted until Garland's death 30 years later. Though the let's-put-on-a-show movies they made together may be corny in the plot department, their entertainment value remains priceless. Mickey and Judy could do it all - sing, dance, clown, do impressions, and tug the heart strings - and no film better showcases all that talent, not to mention their irrepressible energy, spirit, and sincerity, better than Strike Up the Band.
Following hot on the heels of Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band could be classified as the original High School Musical. It might be hard to believe, but as the #1 box office draw in the nation, the pint-sized Rooney easily rivaled Zac Efron in the teen idol department, and though Garland lacks the Lolita allure of Vanessa Hudgens, her potent pipes and magnetic personality make her a far more mesmerizing screen presence. Together, Rooney and Garland gave teenagers a good name, and their wholesome films captivated young and old alike. Not surprisingly, they're still captivating audiences 80 years later.
Here, the two play Jimmy Connors (no relation to the hall-of-fame tennis player) and Mary Holden, a couple of high school seniors with big showbiz dreams. Jimmy forms a dance orchestra with his band buddies, and when he learns about an American Idol-style school band competition in Chicago sponsored by jazz great Paul Whiteman, he and Mary mount a comic spoof of Victorian melodramas to raise the necessary travel funds. Some bumps in the road threaten to derail their plans and force them to make hard choices, but perseverance and good values pay off in the end and give Jimmy, Mary, and all their friends a chance to strut their stuff over the national airwaves.
Without Rooney and Garland - and some splashy production numbers conceived by director Busby Berkeley - all the high-minded preaching and shameless sentimentality that pervade the plot would surely sink Strike Up the Band. Mickey and Judy, though, are so genuine and their enthusiasm is so infectious, they're able to rise above the hokum and make it palatable. Both were hardly "normal" teenagers in real life, but they embody them on screen with ease, and that's why their appeal extends far beyond their top-flight musical and dramatic abilities. Unlike so many other ingenues, they really make us believe they're the boy and girl next door.
Strike Up the Band takes the George and Ira Gershwin title song - and nothing else - from the 1927 Broadway musical of the same name. The flag-waving tune puts a patriotic spin on this all-American show that celebrates the promise of youth. MGM's resident musical guru Roger Edens wrote most of the film's other songs, including the charming duet "Our Love Affair," which would soon become a standard, and the sardonic ode to love, "Nobody," which beautifully spotlights Garland's uncanny ability to juxtapose humor and heartache. "Drummer Boy" gives Rooney a chance to show off his impressive percussion skills, and the rhythmic, vivacious "Do the La Conga" rattles and rolls, as Mickey and Judy lead the student body in a humdinger of a conga line while shaking their chassis with abandon. The massive production number, choreographed by Berkeley and featuring his signature intricate formations, stands as one of the film's highlights, along with a rip-roaring finale that's comprised of truncated reprises of all the songs.
Invention is also on display when Jimmy uses a fruit bowl to demonstrate a new musical arrangement to Mary. In the charming fantasy sequence, future director Vincente Minnelli - in one of his first studio assignments - brings the fruits to life with claymation-like animation that allows them to play instruments that mirror their shape and girth. It's an inspired bit of whimsy that reflects the joy and innocence that define the Rooney-Garland films. Equally sophisticated, but presented in a purposely lowbrow manner, is the clever show-within-a-show spoof of Victorian melodramas that allows Rooney, Garland, and the rest of the cast to don period costumes, adopt affected voices, and overact with abandon. It's silly, over-the-top fun that Mickey and Judy pull off with typical aplomb.
The energy on display is mind-boggling, too. Much has been written about MGM giving their two prized thoroughbreds performance-enhancing drugs and putting the slightly chunky Garland on a strict chicken soup diet to control her weight. All of that is no doubt true (the abuse was not only reprehensible, it also severely transformed Garland's life and led to her premature death at age 47), but I also believe there's an innate electricity coursing through both Rooney and Garland that fuels much of their dazzling work. Watching them here, it's impossible not to be gobsmacked by their complete commitment to their craft and indomitable will to entertain. The phrase "giving your all" rarely rings so true.
I've been a staunch Garland admirer ever since I first saw The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 4. Her poise, warmth, vulnerability, exuberance, authenticity, and ability to musically communicate almost any emotion make her the consummate performer. And then there's that voice. The purity of tone, the unbridled power, the fervent feeling behind it... It still sends chills up my spine almost every time I hear it. All the qualities that led to Garland being crowned the "world's greatest entertainer" years later are on full display in Strike Up the Band. And to think she was only 18 when she made it.
Rooney was 20. He comes on stronger than Garland, has less polish, and tends to overdo his patented shtick. At times, he resembles a whirling dervish, like the Tasmanian Devil in the Looney Tunes cartoons, yet when he tones himself down and abandons his "I'm going to entertain you if it kills me" mantra, he's an extremely effective and affecting actor. I've seen Strike Up the Band many times and always appreciated Rooney's efforts, but this time he truly bowled me over. This time, I finally began to understand why America embraced him so completely and why he sat atop the list of top 10 Hollywood stars for three years in a row. He really is a dynamo.
Strike Up the Band may not be the best Rooney-Garland film (that honor goes to Girl Crazy), but it best represents the youthful vigor and wholesome values that define their work together. Both of these beloved stars were American originals, and Strike Up the Band shows us why they remain enduring icons of entertainment. Fantastic performers come and go, but there never was and probably never will be another pair quite like Mickey and Judy. Here's looking at you, kids.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Strike Up the Band arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I have seen Strike Up the Band many times, but I have never, ever seen it like this. A brand new 4K restoration yields a spectacular 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that adds even more snap, crackle, and pop to this energetic high school musical. The crystal clear, brilliantly balanced picture allows us to fully appreciate and absorb all the dazzling talent in front of and behind the camera like never before. The image is so crisp - yet still incredibly film-like - you can almost feel the electricity emanating from Rooney and Garland and must resist the urge to try and jump into the conga line behind them. The ingenuity of Berkeley's claymation reprise of "Our Love Affair," in which a variety of fruits play an array of instruments, is even more apparent and impressive in the splendor of high definition, as are his massive production numbers that employ dozens (hundreds?) of dancers and musicians. Black-and-white films usually don't produce sensory overload, but this transfer of Strike Up the Band comes close...and that's a very good thing.
Faint grain supplies essential texture, while excellent contrast and wonderfully varied grays enhance depth and detail. Rich blacks anchor the image, bright whites never bloom, and superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Sharp close-ups showcase Garland's fresh-faced vivacity and Rooney's endless repertoire of expressions, and not a single nick, mark, or errant scratch dots the pristine print. Normally, I would provide a detailed comparison between this rendering and the (very good) 2007 DVD, but this transfer is so far superior, it's really not necessary.
In the end, it's the overall clarity that's the star of this restoration. (At one point, you can actually see a fly buzzing around Rooney, then landing on his sleeve.) There's a lot going on in Strike Up the Band, but this terrific transfer helps us drink it all in and savor the details that make this teen extravaganza such an unequivocal delight.
A movie called Strike Up the Band better have top-notch sound, and I'm happy to report the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track on this Warner Archive Blu-ray provides just that. Bright, robust, contoured tones and superior fidelity help this track fill the room and show off the power and nuance of both Paul Whiteman's Orchestra and the fictional Jimmy Connors high school band. A wide dynamic scale gives the brass, strings, and percussion plenty of room to breathe and handles the kinetic force of Garland's full-throated vocals without a hint of distortion. Drums play a big role in the film - there's even a song called "Drummer Boy" - and strong bass frequencies allow the snares, hi-hats, tom toms, and cymbals to shine. All the dialogue and song lyrics are clear and easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle disrupt the purity of the music.
With such a fantastic video transfer grabbing so much attention, it would be easy to dismiss the audio or take it for granted, but this terrific track will not be ignored. It honors Garland's peerless voice and Whiteman's iconic orchestra, and makes Strike Up the Band as much fun to hear as it is to see.
All the supplements from the 2007 DVD have been ported over to this release.
Introduction by Mickey Rooney (HD, 3 minutes) - The 87-year-old Rooney reminisces about the good old days at MGM and salutes some of the film's supporting cast in this heartfelt introduction.
Vintage Short Subject: Wedding Bills (SD, 10 minutes) - Another enjoyable entry in the long-running Pete Smith Specialty series, this one-reel short wryly chronicles the mounting expenses and unavoidable mishaps intrinsic to a couple's engagement. Oh, how little things have changed over the years!
Vintage Cartoon: Romeo in Rhythm (SD, 8 minutes) - Equally delightful, this cartoon spoofs both The Wizard of Oz and Stanley and Livingstone as it chronicles how a company of black crows stutters and stumbles its way through an operatic version of Romeo and Juliet.
"Do the La Conga" Stereo Remix Version (HD, 6 minutes) - Heightened fidelity leads to extra excitement, which makes this remix of the movie's signature production number a must-watch.
Vintage Radio Shows (87 minutes) - Three vintage programs are included on the disc. First up is a lively and faithful hour-long Lux Radio Theater adaptation of Strike Up the Band that was broadcast on October 28, 1940. Though it strangely omits the title song (and abbreviates the rest of the score), the program nicely captures the film's Americana flavor and contains spirited performances by Rooney and Garland in their Lux Radio Theater debuts. (The audio quality is also exceptional.) Next is a 14-minute Leo Is on the Air radio promo that features select songs from the film as well as some Hollywood industry news. That's followed by a 14-minute excerpt from a 1941 Millions for Defense broadcast that saddles Rooney and Garland with a madcap script better suited to Abbott and Costello. Judy sings a rousing version of "Strike Up the Band" and Mickey resurrects his pitch-perfect Lionel Barrymore impression in this oddly amusing radio rarity.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview, which is in excellent condition and includes snippets of many songs, completes the extras package.
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland knock themselves out trying to entertain us in Strike Up the Band...and boy, do they ever succeed! The two dynamos sing, dance, clown, and tug the heart strings in this rousing high school musical that's a tailor-made showcase for their tremendous triple-threat talent. The tale of a teen impresario who strives to get his school band into a radio competition sponsored by big band leader Paul Whiteman is pretty hokey, but Rooney and Garland - and the ingenuity of director Busby Berkeley - are timeless, and they make this spirited extravaganza endlessly entertaining. Warner Archive's new 4K restoration yields an eye-popping five-star transfer, while equally robust lossless audio intensifies the power of Garland's powerhouse vocals and Whiteman's sublime orchestra. If you're a Rooney-Garland fanatic, an upgrade is essential, and if you've never seen one of this dynamic duo's captivating musicals, there's no better time. Highly Recommended.