The Gene Krupa Story

The Gene Krupa Story

Infobox Film
name = The Gene Krupa Story

caption =
director = Don Weis
producer = Philip A. Waxman
writer = Orin Jannings
starring = Sal Mineo
Susan Kohner
James Darren
Susan Oliver
music = Leith Stevens
cinematography =
editing =
distributor = Columbia Pictures
released = 1959
runtime = 1 hr 41 min
country = U.S.
language = English
budget =
preceded_by =
followed_by =
website =
amg_id =
imdb_id = 0052840

"The Gene Krupa Story" is a 1959 biopic of American drummer and bandleader Gene Krupa. The conflict in the film centers around Krupa's rise to success and his corresponding use of marijuana.

Plot Synopses

We open first to the theme of the movie, this “savage tempo of the jazz era,” an enigmatic, top-down shot of a white drum set and a mysterious man banging away, his face hidden from the camera. The hi-hat rolls with suspense as the audience can neither see nor hear anything else—the drummer seems to sit in a void, hammering out his music against a black backdrop, sonically and physically isolated from the rest of the world. The music turns dark, brassy and strong with the introduction of the horns and the artists’ hands flail about unhinged from the drummer’s consciousness, beating out a rhythm that sets the pace for our faceless protagonist’s life story. This story, The Gene Krupa Story, was released in1959 after Columbia Pictures “turned to its own recording division in search of a suitable subject” to capitalize on the wave of jazz biopics of the 1950s. With the success of the 1950 film "Young Man with a Horn" under the direction of Michael Curtiz and "The Glenn Miller Story" in 1953, the floodgates were open for the studios to build the appeal of white jazz biopics primarily on nostalgia. Having recently been voted Best Drummer in "Down Beat" magazine’s 1953 reader poll, Columbia decided that the life story of this living legend of the jazz age would make perfect fodder for the silver screen. Whether or not the story matches up with the events in Krupa’s life is an irrelevant topic, as Krupa’s contributions to the entire soundtrack imply consent and even fondness of the idea of this particular artistic interpretation of his life and therefore should be viewed as a piece of art in itself, as a film—not a biography. Columbia’s take on Gene Krupa’s life story is a quintessential 1950s jazz biopic, and thus launches into this celebration of nostalgia head first, segueing from this introductory scene straight back to the heart of the jazz age, Chicago circa 1927.

The young Gene Krupa first shows his face walking down the street, with a drum set and a desire to play that is bigger than he is. He sets his drum set in the family room where the entire Krupa clan has gathered for something of an intervention. Following a precedent set by W.C. Handy’s father in St. Louis Blues and Nicky’s mother in Blues In the Night (among many others), Gene’s father abhors the idea of his playing jazz music. He reacts sadistically, busting in the tom-toms and the bass drums, claiming that he has only “been too easy on my baby son.” This act is the single, tangible offense, the sole event that causes the rift between Gene and his parents to form; likewise, this is Gene's first act as an individual acting against his filial duty, reacting with all of the pride and swagger of a truly great artist restrained. “I know there’s music in the drums, pop,” he exclaims, and explains that these “pots and pans” are the first instrument ever played by man. He appeals to the fundamental human creativity, an idea explored in the 1966 film A Man Called Adam: the jazz man is held up as something primeval, and different from the rest of the world, an idealized form of a human expressing his creative powers in a somehow life-affirming manner. When this humanistic argument falls flat against his father’s stonewall defense (read: pigheadedness), he appeals to a simpler necessity: “There’s a group of guys that asked me to play…they play gigs for money, pop.” Gene’s father believes nothing of what he says, or if he does, he refuses to believe it—he envisions his son as an emissary of the faith and desires that his “baby” son goes to study in the seminary—and eventually breaks the entire set. With all of the sincerity a broken spirit can muster, Gene lets out a single eulogistic breath of a line, “Why don’t you kick me too, pop?"

The film truly captures Krupa’s brilliant sound. Following this confrontational introduction to the life of the aspiring jazz musician, we, the audience, are treated to an instantly gratifying performance from Gene. This scene validates Krupa’s arguments for the sake of his music that were placed fresh in the minds of the viewer only seconds prior to this exhibition. His first performance is energetic and invigorating, so much so that the camera is lured close to the movements and actions of the drummer despite the other members of the band’s virtuoso performances. The scene is framed with Krupa in the center, and the band surrounds him, as if they are only there to support his immense talent. It is such an unusual topic for a jazz biopic, this jazz drummer, as opposed to the tenor man, the young man with a horn, the maddened piano player, or the crippled singer seen in so many other films—it makes for an entirely different listening and viewing experience. When the protagonist is a drummer, one’s expectations are shifted and one is compelled to pay close attention to aspects of the music that are far too often considered precursory or auxiliary by the uninitiated listener: the rhythms and tempos, the beats and breaks and basslines that, in some circumstances, are downplayed in the presence of high-flying brass and woodwind solos, are brought to light in full force both in this film and in this single performance. After Krupa finishes his performance at the club, a lovely young girl who introduces herself as Ethel tells Krupa that she has become enamored with his music. She seems interested in the darker side of his expression, imagining the pious Krupa “beating the devil” out of his drums, and making vague racist allusions to “creating black magic,” the music of the of the African jungles. She can be considered the contemporary response to Krupa’s wild music, a cultural measuring rod against which Krupa’s music is judged; she claims to be “scary drumming,” in other words, she says that she thinks it is simply too evocative for the general audience those who are not willing to embrace the unfamiliar. She, however, tentatively embraces this unfamiliarity, but at the same time admits her fear of the music that he makes. As opposed to his father, she acknowledges that he is making music with his drums, despite the fact that it makes her “all shook up.” Gene seeks nothing but respect for his art having never received it from his family (only a couple of minutes prior to this scene), and having found this particular sentiment in this girl who simply throws herself at him, she capitalizes on our protagonist’s single deficiency and makes for a perfect love interest for Gene.

Later in the film, these two characters are finally able to be alone together for just a moment and share in what could be categorizes as the typical 1950s confessional movie kiss and embark upon the subsequent 1950s movie relationship. Suddenly, Gene and Ethel cannot contain their love for one another for a moment longer, regardless of the circumstances. The woman relinquishes control of her body, as his embrace becomes something of a subtle death grip on her torso, and the two young romantics voices let shallow, panted words escape between bated breaths. Then, accompanied by a Vivaldi-inspired symphonic crescendo, the kiss finally happens, embodying all of the wonderful, idealized passion of a vacuum cleaner stuck to shag carpet. After a few moments of standing completely still, locked in a fit of emotions, their mouths finally break away from one another, but their bodies remain attached at the hip, as if to signify that after one moment of passion, they are tied together for eternity. “What are you going to do with her?” Eddie asks Gene in the following scene. His reply comes instantly, almost before Eddie finishes talking: “Oh! Well, I’m going to marry her.” These characters fall in love forever and always, setting an incredible standard for the generation of children that watched this movie—for today’s contemporary audience this seems only like a shallow representation of real life, dripping with saccharine sweet nostalgia reminiscent of a bygone age.

Gene returns from this successful display of his talents and a somewhat successful romantic encounter to find his father on his deathbed back at the Krupa household. He wanders in through his own home, confused to see the group of men and women keeping vigil over one of their own, a believer in the faith. “Don’t die, papa,” Krupa cries; the next scene immediately cuts to a shot of a church and the sound of an organ. His father has since died and has become a saint in the eyes of his son. Gene even says later in the film that he “loves [his] father like he was God.” Within one minute’s time passed in this movie, Gene has left the self-determined life of a jazz musician at the behest of his father’s last request as a student in the seminary. This quick turnaround, this reversal of expectations, is a hallmark of this film and many other jazz films, but this film in particular makes great use of this dramatic technique. The dramatic tone of the first jazz biopics is derived from the excessive gap between the highs and lows of life, a contrast mirrored by the dramatic pacing of the screenplay. Because these dramatic changes happen over the course of only a few minutes, sometimes this contrast is pushed to the point of hilarity. There are several trials and tribulations that our young Krupa must endure—several obstacles are erected and knocked down in a matter of minutes; because the film focuses on the rise and subsequent fall of this jazz drummer’s career, the entirety of Krupa’s youth is addressed within the first twenty minutes of the movie.

Thus, after the death of his father, Krupa finds himself lost at the seminary, lost imagining furious “syncopated versions” of the Ave Maria when he should be listening to holy hymns in a quiet, penitent reverie; even after a year’s time spent at the seminary, he still cannot shake his dreams of becoming a fantastic musician. When he consults with his spiritual leader, he is told that he should wait for summer vacation to make a decision, the time when he is able to go home from the seminary, back to the world of jazz and other impious trades. Here he can act like he is “just one of the guys,” palling around with his old gang of musician buddies as if nothing has changed, but his clerical collar marks him as a distinct outsider. If nothing else, this suggests that he is still the same person on the inside, that these clothes that he wears are, in fact, just clothes. He never wanted to become a member of the clergy, and now he has returned to his old haunts, asking to be seduced back into the dark “scary” world of jazz. Seeing his old set, Krupa walks slowly over to the drums and gently rubs the crash cymbal between his thumb and forefinger, caressing the surface as if it were the face of a long forgotten lover, a long since renounced desire of a world that he tried to leave behind. The gang asks him to play, and he struggles with the idea of playing the music because of his faith and his commitment to the church, thus setting up the jazz tradition as a kind of counter-culture opposing religion. Gene protests, saying that “a priest can’t…” and then he trails off, unable to finish his thought. By today’s standards, it seems absurd that one could consider creating music as something contrary to Catholicism, and Gene realizes this fact is true for him, perhaps ahead of his time. At the time, the jazz culture seemed to represent more away from the traditions of old music, from classical Western traditions of form over function. Gene’s mother becomes upset when she finds him playing in the speakeasy, but Gene doesn’t even concern himself with illegal drinking. We see Gene refuse a drink from a girl that taunts him, and believes that playing this music is “conveying something holy,” that performing the music he loves is not an example of ethical degeneration or decrepitude. He seeks to find the good in a world that is not necessarily centered on God, an idea addressed in Albert Camus’ famous novel, "The Plague". Gene’s contribution to this world is his music that gives so many people great joy—he believes that he would not be doing all that he can to reduce the amount of suffering in the world if he were to squander his talents and study to become a priest in the seminary. He is forced to make a decision contrary to the traditions and expectations of his forebears. His career advisor at the seminary suspects that his supposed interest is waning, and declares that Gene should only pursue the priesthood as a vocation, not as a penance for betraying his father’s wishes. Gene’s mother has lived a humble life based in this teleological, religious, Old World culture cannot stand up to the freedoms permitted to Gene in this American culture, even just a generation removed from immigration. Gene is free to create his own system of valuation born of the jazz age after he has broken away from his mother’s traditions, renouncing the ascetic life of the priesthood for something that truly gives his life meaning.

Gene makes it to the top of the heap in New York City, having been convinced by Ethel to leave the small-time business of speakeasy joints behind him. In a swirling montage scene with far too many electric lights, Gene arrives in New York in 1930, and soon finds opportunities to prove his worth. In a leap of faith, Krupa jumps on the drums at an upscale party, performing with famed bandleader Tommy Dorsey. In the second musical number of the film featuring Krupa’s percussion, he leads the way on an accelerated version of “(Back Home Again) In Indiana,” a Dixieland jazz band number, which Krupa adds a long, wonderful drum solo that gets these notable musicians to sit up and take notice of this “hot swing drummer.” His stock is rising, and he starts to reap the benefits of his ability, receiving an offer to join Fred Nichols pit band to play George Gershwin’s revival of his musical "Strike Up the Band". His fame reaches an all time high as he begins to rehearse with some of the top performers in the business, but, because of the standard, cliched dichotomy of these jazz films, and the fact that this particular film would not break its own set precedent in midstream, something bad is bound to happen.

Enter the pusher man. A glimpse of pre-1960s drug culture makes for one of the most blissfully nostalgic, wonderfully wrought scenes in the movie. As soon as the female lead leaves Gene alone in the rehearsal room, one sniveling, greasy, grinning teahead saunters up to Krupa, offering his accolades and his magic reefers. “What are we giving away here?” he asks the gleeful man, who is obviously up to something. Out of all of the pushers that I have seen in the movies, the two featured in this film are probably the least dangerous but most conspicuous bunch of dope-slingers on record. He whines out a slick line to seduce this young, pliable mind into helpless addiction: “It’s the most! One sip and you’re gone from the veil of tears.” And then comes the greatest line in the movie, delivered by the innocent, oh-so naïve boy: “Reefers? Hm, so that’s what they look like.” Pusher Man is already lost in thought, “Weed! The tender weed, or as the peasants say, tea! But I know you know! How else would you get that crazy kick in your drums, daddy-o?” Gene, who has never before touched a sip of liquor (let alone marijuana), takes offense—his highs are all natural, he claims; “Come off it, Jack, you think I need anything to get me up there?”

Gene’s career skyrockets after a fantastic performance of “Cherokee” with the Glenn Miller Band. This is the musical highlight of the film; he goes absolutely crazy, unleashing a massive solo at the end of this song, cheered on by the crowd yelling, “Go, Gene! Go!” This is the moment when he knows he has made the big time; in a moment of Dionysian intoxication, Gene yells with all of his heart and soul “Do you hear that mom! They approve!” He becomes maddened with his own success, and embarks on a downward spiral of alcohol abuse and cheating on Ethel, never having taken the leap into marriage. Ethel then leaves him at the peak of his career, and the stress of Gene’s life drives him to a crippling addiction to the very same reefers he once rejected. He achieves true greatness, breaking away from the Glen Miller Band and becoming better than ever before, leading his own ensemble to glory. But at the peak of his career, Krupa is busted for dope charges, having been set up with a fantastic amount of reefers: the police find 37 marijuana cigarettes in Krupa’s coat, which seems like a hefty amount of weed—an obvious set-up. Krupa bites the bullet and serves the 90-day bum rap, and returns to the world of music with a tarnished name. Out of work, he goes to speak with Ken Le May to work in his famed Band of Today, only to be rejected outright because of his conviction: “Do you know what would happen if I hired an addict? They would be like cutting my own throat!” This ridiculous, outlandish attitude is most likely the same stance assumed by the general public in 1959; this film serves to reinforce the stigmatized view of marijuana smokers that still exists today. Because Tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive substance found in the cannabis plant, has been proven to not be a physically addictive substance by contemporary science, this outdated, outlandish concept of the crippled cannabis smoker seems like a humorous hypothesis based in the nostalgic hysteria surrounding drug use.

Krupa finally returns to the stage in the grand finale of the show, having proven his worth to Ethel (since returned to Gene) and Tommy Dorsey by learning how to read music under the tutelage of a member of the New York Philharmonic. As a special guest star, Krupa is allowed a performance that could vindicate his entire career. In an obvious physical metaphor, Krupa is positioned on a platform below the stage at the beginning of the performance; only when the music starts is he able to elevate himself to the higher level of the other performers. The performance starts out great, but almost on cue, the heckling crowd members jeer at Krupa to the point of literally dropping one of his sticks. There seems to be no hope for this has-been, and then the impossible happens. To the audience’s surprise the Tommy Dorsey Band drummer picks up the beat when Krupa fails, and he covers for his fellow drummer as a sign of good faith. This unspoken communication between the artists forms a kind of sacred bond that saves Krupa's reputation. Krupa composes himself and is able to finish out an amazing call-and-response, two-man drum solo. The other drummer serves as a reminder of the original and singular passion that drives Gene to create wonderful music, and his seemingly floundering career is revived instantaneously. He loses the sense of self-consciousness that the crowd attempted to emphasize, and the music grows in intensity. He hits his marks, creating a low, rumbling sound on the toms that gradually grows; we can see Krupa restored to his full abilities, and the music swells. He silences the crowd, unleashing his prowess on the drums and seconds later someone shouts, “Go, Gene! Go!” and the music erupts into an ecstasy of percussive force. The audience greets Krupa with a standing ovation upon the finish of the song, and Krupa has returned. We leave Krupa in the arms of his girl, Ethel, to whom he owes his entire career at this point. In another reversal of expectations, contrary to everything that the previous one hundred minutes of film would suggest, Krupa and Ethel seem bound together again for better or worse. Unlike the “downer” endings that typify the jazz films of the 1970s and 1980s like Bird and New York, New York, Krupa is neither dead nor dejected at the end of his biopic. The dramatic cycle of Krupa’s life has come full circle, from the depths of despair to the heights of stardom once more—the Hollywood ending ensures that the audience leaves the theater happy.

Because he was alive at the time of this movie’s production, Gene Krupa had the privilege to put his own heart and soul in this film, as he performed the sensational musical numbers for the soundtrack featuring a band that includes Anita O’Day, Red Nichols and Buddy Lester. Columbia Studios was able to create a concise work of art of astounding power. The end result preserves the legacy and subsumed culture of the jazz age, the nostalgia of 1950s jazz biopic, and the life of this jazz drummer in one of Columbia Studios’ finest forgotten gems.


*In the United Kingdom, the title of the film was "Drum Crazy".
*Krupa himself played the drums on the soundtrack for the film, and for the sequences in which Mineo, as Krupa, plays the drums. []

Memorable Quotes

*"Reefers huh? So that's what they look like", spoken by Gene Krupa (Sal Mineo).
*"Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a town I'd better get out of", spoken by Dorissa Dinell (Susan Oliver), Krupa's bad girl love interest.

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