Swedish jazz singer Monica Zetterlund was her country’s best-loved chanteuse, but she wanted more. And the one thing that gave her a chance at global stardom? She could sing in English without a European accent.

“Monica Z” (International Title: “Waltz For Monica”) tells the story of her not-so-speedy rise to stardom. Monica got there in the end, step by shaky step.

The films shows how Monica (played by Edda Magnason) sang by night while working as a phone operator by day — she longs to succeed and to finally snag some approval from her ever-disapproving dad (Kjell Bergqvist). But, in New York, revelation comes in the form of Ella Fitzgerald, who casually asks Monica why she’s “pretending to be somebody else.” The implication was that she should sing in her own language, about her own life and just forget about covering standards in English.

Monica Z (Stockholm de Waltz Wo)
Director Per Fly
Run Time 111 minutes
Language Swedish, English (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Nov. 29

Having arrived at the top, though, she stayed. Consequently, Monica enjoyed her time in the limelight a lot longer than the more flamboyant jazz stars of her generation.

Not that her career was stress-free: Monica was a single mother long before she stood on the stage, swinging between the two modes of showering her daughter Eva-Lena (Nadja Christiansson) with attention and neglecting her completely. As her engagements increased, Monica was apt to choose work over home life, parties over family. And along with the glitter of fame and stardom came the usual problems of alcoholism, failed relationships and depression. Needless to say, all this took a toll on Eva-Lena and Monica’s dad, who looked after his granddaughter while his daughter pursued her dreams.

As biopics go, “Monica Z” is straightforward and predictable. The story tends to only brush the surface of Monica’s problems, which is sad, because obviously the singer was much more than the sum of her triumphs. Her relationship with her dad, for example, offers a compelling slice of life: He gave up being a musician to support his family. Monica thinks her own success will redeem his failure but it doesn’t work like that, and the father-daughter conversations are painful but insightful to witness. Too bad director Per Fly doesn’t seem interested in making room for more.

On the other hand, Fly sure knows how to keep the story centered firmly on Magnason. The audience gets the full blast of her real-life singer/songwriter talents, enhanced by a Marilyn Monroe-like hairdo and the charisma of a woman who knows how to command a stage.

“Monica Z” is a welcome departure from traditional Swedish cinema, but biopics are tricky animals — they can recreate a subject’s work to the minutest detail but in the end these people still elude us, receding into a cloud of unknowable mystery. That’s certainly the case with “Monica Z,” but perhaps Fly wanted it that way.

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