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HAYDN IN HOLLYWOOD: 32 short reviews of movies about classical music

Hollywood can make movies about playwrights, poets, painters. It can make you bawl over the death of a dog, feel you’re genuinely on board the Titanic or evoke precisely the melancholy of a small town in the Deep South. But when it comes to making films about classical music, it’s time to drag out every moth-eaten cliché about suffering artists, the nature of genius, and the vicissitudes of a life devoted to “high art.” From the high-falutin’ Warner Bros. potboilers of the 1930s and ’40s to the casting of Ed Harris as a vulgar, Bronx-cheering Beethoven, the movies have shown a dismaying tendency to falter when it comes to depicting an art form that, ultimately, few in the film industry really understand.

There have been bright spots, though, and to help classical fans while away the late summer evenings we’ve compiled a list of worthy titles — films that “get” this music, that find threads of meaning and truth in the midst of all the furrow-browed pretentiousness. Included, too, are titles that you may be tempted to rent but might want to reconsider (as well as some I forbid you from watching). What’s lamentable is how few films scored well!

Special thanks to Jonathan Borja, movie-buff and flutist par excellence, for helping me compile the list. Video stores being what they are these days, for many or most of these titles you’ll probably need to go to Netflix, Blockbuster Direct Access or some other mail-order service.

♪♪♪♪  Amadeus (1984). The musicologist in me cringed at the wanton (or perhaps playfully willful) disregard for historical fact in Milos Forman’s adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play, but the depiction of a giggling, infantile Mozart is irresistible in Tom Hulse’s virtuoso performance. This visual and aural feast features enough of Mozart’s music to remind us of its greatness but not so much that we forget that it’s a movie we’re watching, and not a filmed concert. The decision to film in Czech-born Forman’s beloved Prague was a genius-stroke, not just because some of the action does take place there but because modern Prague looks more like 18th-century Vienna than today’s Vienna does. F. Murray Abraham’s magisterial performance as the spiteful, allegedly murderous Salieri won him an Academy Award. In fact there were eight Oscars in all, including for Best Picture and Best Director.

♪♪♪♪  The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006). Though ostensibly the story of an East German Stasi agent’s crisis of conscience, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Academy Award-winner (Best Foreign Film) is fundamentally about the power of music — and of art in general — to change hearts. The targets of the Stasi agent’s surveillance are an actress and her playwright husband, who throughout the film practices a piano sonata that plays a pivotal role in the story. This is one of the great films of German cinema, which is saying a lot from a country that has produced Murnau, Lang, Lubitsch, Herzog, Schlöndorff and Fassbinder. Ulrich Mühe, who plays the agent, was one of East Germany’s great actors, but few outside the GRD knew of his gifts before this film; he died the year after its release, at age 54. Virtuosically directed both for historical detail and maximum dramatic impact, and deftly sentimental in the close-to-the-chest, slow-burn German manner, this dazzling film features one of the biggest final emotional wallops I’ve ever experienced in a film.

♪♪♪½  Topsy-Turvy (1999). Writer-director Mike Leigh surprised the daylights out of me by making a super-classy film about Gilbert & Sullivan that is as witty, urbane and iconoclastic as the famous duo’s operettas. The film focuses on the creation of the G&S masterpiece, The Mikado, and it shows behind-the-scenes chicanery of 19th-century theater as vividly and plausibly as any film I can name. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner are perfect in the lead roles, playing off each other with all the prickly energy that we know existed between the real characters. The film won two well-deserved Oscars, for costume design and makeup, and Leigh’s script was nominated and should have won but didn’t.

♪♪♪½  The Chorus (Les choristes, 2004). Top-drawer direction by newcomer Christophe Baratier and expert performances by Gérard Jugnot and more than a dozen child actors raise this movie into the upper ranks of the “arts-transforming-difficult-kids” genre. The new music teacher (Jugnot) at a school for delinquent boys finds that several of his students have fine voices, and he forms a choir with which he is able to focus their energies and, ultimately, instill not just discipline but a love of music. But there are wrinkles: Many of these boys are the products of horrendous domestic situations — the action takes place during the trauma-filled years following World War II. The school’s cruel headmaster becomes jealous of the boys’ affection for the music teacher and does everything he can to jeopardize the choir’s success. It’s hard to explain the power of this film, which deals with harsh realities and strong emotions with restraint and sensitivity. It’s what Mr. Holland’s Opus might have been if it hadn’t been produced in Schlocktown, U.S.A.

♪♪♪½  The Pianist (2002). This gut-wrenching film is really two movies in one, the first a grisly recounting of Nazi atrocities against the Jews of Warsaw and the second a hauntingly human story about an unlikely relationship between a famous Polish pianist and the music-loving German officer who recognizes his musical stature — and who protects him from capture by allowing him to hide in a bombed-out house. Based on the book by the actual pianist, the late Wladyslaw Szpilman, the film won three Oscars, including those for Polish-born Roman Polanski’s direction and Adrien Brody’s achingly detailed portrayal of Szpilman. While the first half is frightfully difficult to watch, the second half is pure poetry. (In 2009 the officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, who died in Soviet captivity in 1952, was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, which honors non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust at personal risk.)

♪♪♪½  Immortal Beloved (1994). It’s hard to make any kind of movie about Beethoven, much less a good one, but Bernard Rose has come about as close as anyone. This whodunit tries to identify the mysterious woman Beethoven identified as hisunsterbliche Geliebte in three famous letters penned in 1812. The film’s conclusion about her identity is so startlingly absurd that it’s actually rather fun — as long as you don’t take it too seriously. Gary Oldman delivers a multi-layered, surprisingly cliché-free portrayal as the composer, and the music and dazzling visuals make this a must-see. Rose, who also wrote the script, is one of Hollywood’s more musically astute directors: He also wrote and directed the delightful horror flick Candyman, which featured a capital original score by Philip Glass, and more recently (in 2008) an adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata.

♪♪♪  Diva (1981). Delightfully offbeat, and one of the hippest films of the 1980s, this French thriller involves the confusion of two tapes — one that can implicate a corrupt cop and the other a clandestinely taped performance of an American opera singer who eschews commercial recordings. The direction by Jean-Jacques Beineix is of the hold-onto-your-seat variety, and the haunting aria by Catalani (“Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from La Wally) becomes a focal point. The soprano who played the diva, Philadelphia-born Wilhelmenia Fernandez, had a brief moment of enormous fame as a result of this film.

♪♪♪  Mahler (1974). Perhaps the only way to make a movie about a composer who wanted his symphonies to “embrace the whole universe” is to not take yourself too seriously. Arguably the best of Ken Russell’s series of fanciful composer biopics (Lisztomania, The Music Lovers), this one is gorgeously photographed and energetically paced — the latter quality being an all-too-rare trait among classical-music films. To underscore his intention to avoid excessive gravitas, Russell has included some bizarre and at times funny dream sequences in which Alma Mahler dances with a Nazi storm trooper and Cosima Wagner pops up to join the anti-Mahler anti-Semites. But along the way we get a pretty straightforward tale of the twists and turns of this extraordinary life.

♪♪♪  Tous les matins du monde (1991). This brilliant and consistently engaging film, co-written and directed by Alain Corneau, has a square and honest quality about it. The Baroque gambist Marin Marais was a member of the court of Versailles and one of the most important string virtuosos of his time. Who knew you could make a great movie out of such seemingly arcane material? Corneau is aided by stellar performances from Gerard Depardieu and a top-flight musical score of music of the time, performed by gamba guru Jordi Savall and his Concert des Nations ensemble (frequent guests of Kansas City’s Friends of Chamber Music series). Slow-paced but an aural and visual treat, it’s a film that shows that 18th-century musicians were often emotional wrecks, too.

♪♪♪  Running on Empty (1988). Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti are a couple on the run, having bombed a napalm factory in 1971 as part of a Weather Underground-type operation. But they’re dragging their sons from place to place, and it’s getting to be a problem: The older of the two (River Phoenix) is a gifted pianist with aspirations of attending Juilliard. Sidney Lumet’s direction is at its best here and the performances make a seemingly implausible script surprisingly compelling. The only truly absurd thing is that Phoenix is admitted into Juilliard entirely on the strength of his performance of a simple, six-minute Mozart Fantasy (which appears to be the only thing he can play). Ah, Hollywood.

♪♪½  Deception (1946). The most deliciously melodramatic of Warner Bros.’ music-themed potboilers, this tawdry tale features a commanding performance by Claude Rains as an egomaniacal composer and domineering teacher. Davis is a pianist with a penchant for the dashing cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), whose presence sends Rains into hilarious tirades of jealous wrath. One of the other stars of this film is the top-drawer score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, including an adaptation of his own cello concerto. Henreid fakes his cello-playing rather well compared to Davis’ lame attempt at Beethoven’s Appassionata.

♪♪½  Farinelli (1994). It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about this film, which at times depicts 18th-century Europe with considerable accuracy but sensationalizes the life of the famous Italian castrato Carlo Broschi (called Farinelli). Most fascinating, for me, was the digitized “composite” voice produced by combining electronically the sound of a countertenor with a female voice in unison. No one knows exactly what a castrato in his prime sounded like — imagine the muscular vocalism of a basso producing sounds in the soprano range — but this is perhaps as good a guess as any. There is much not to like here: The incestuous sexual aspect I found distasteful, not to mention gratuitous, and the horrific portrayal of Handel’s character is mean-spirited. But the surprise ending has quite an impact, whether historically accurate or not.

♪♪½  Vitus (2006). This reasonably engaging story of a 12-year-old prodigy pianist has one unique thing going for it: It features a real-life kid-genius in the title role, Swiss-born pianist Teo Gheorghiu, who actually performs on-screen a series of demanding pieces by Bach, Scarlatti, Mozart, Liszt, Ravel, Schumann and Balakirev. Bruno Ganz is, as ever, a magical presence as the boy’s grandfather, who helps him understand the nature of his gifts and his conflicted relationship with his parents — and also helps fulfill the boys’ dream of flying.

♪♪½  The Red Violin (1998). There’s something fascinating about watching the fate of a Cremona-made violin through the centuries, tracing the lives and destinies of those who have found it in their possession — partly because such violins exist, and some have indeed had quite checkered “careers.” (The best-known is perhaps the famous Stradivarius “ex Hubermann,” which was stolen twice from the same owner and is now in the possession of Joshua Bell — who, as it happens, plays on the soundtrack of this film, though on his previous violin.) This ambitious and beautifully produced epic traces the life of a mysterious fiddle that has supernatural and not entirely benevolent powers over its owners. Sadly, everything is hyberbolic and over-the-top, and after 130 minutes of globe-trotting spanning three centuries, one’s nerves are fried. John Corigliano’s score won an Oscar, but it’s cheap and cloying, and the endlessly repeated main theme becomes like a drill into your skull.

♪♪  Impromptu (1991). You’ve got to hand it to director James Lapine and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan: They’ve taken several 19th-century Romantic artists whose stories have usually been told in high-tragic mode and placed them in the midst of a frothy romantic comedy. In the grand tradition of Rules of the Game and Smiles of a Summer Night, this rambling sex-farce throws together George Sand, Chopin, Liszt, Delacroix and others for a week’s vacation at a countryside estate, where hijinx ensue. Judy Davis is a whimsical Sand, Hugh Grant an ironically tenderhearted Chopin — who even joins the others in making jokes about his own tuberculosis. Despite all good intentions, though, the film’s humor is strained, and musical numbers go on so long that you begin to feel you’re being “educated.”

♪♪  The Soloist (2009). Like Shine, Mr. Holland’s Opus and so many other films that purport to be about classical music, this film is about everything but music: in this case schizophrenia, faux-friendship, ambition, journalistic ethics, just for starters. Based loosely on the real-life story of L.A. Times columnist Steve Rose (Robert Downey, Jr.) and his complicated relationship with a homeless former Juilliard student (Jamie Foxx) who battles mental illness on the mean streets of L.A., the film meanders so much that by the end of its tortuous two hours you don’t really know what it’s about. Still, former funny-man Foxx proves here (again) that he can be a genuine powerhouse in a serious role.

♪♪   Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939). Another torchy melodrama with Leslie Howard as a married concert violinist and Ingrid Bergman as the young accompanist with whom he falls deeply in love. Beautifully filmed by Gregg Toland, the tale is tiresome and long-winded in the telling. Yet there’s something admirably grown-up about the sexual politics of its conclusion — owing perhaps to the fact that the film was based on a Swedish original: After the duo’s fling on a concert tour, Bergman breaks off the relation and goes off to study on a scholarship, and Howard’s wife forgives him for his “intermezzo” from their marriage, and takes him back.

♪♪  Humoresque (1946). Notoriously high-octane with plenty of emotional chiaroscuro, this misguided Warner Bros. melodrama casts John Garfield — a bit out of his gangsterish element — as a concert violinist and (who else?) Joan Crawford as his Mommy Dearest of a patroness. He tries to stay focused on his career, but she craves his hot young body — er, I mean, his artistry — and sinks into depression and alcohol. Curiously, it’s one of the best performances of Crawford’s career, almost as if she found the role “close to home.” The splendid violin playing on the soundtrack is that of a youngish Isaac Stern — the big, bold sound virtually leaps out at you — whose hands you actually see in some close-ups.

♪♪  Aria (1987). Ten leading directors were commissioned to direct short films, each inspired by a different aria or other operatic number. The goal was for each to illuminate some aspect of human existence that bore some connection to the subject of the aria. Included are segments by Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg. As you might expect, the results vary from film to film, and despite some virtuosic directorial technique the overall effect is underwhelming and incomplete. Standouts are Godard’s witty sequence on Lully’s Armide, which he uses to illustrate French bodybuilders, and Franc Roddam’s take on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, set in Las Vegas.

♪½  August Rush (2007). Oliver Twist meets Mr. Holland’s Opus, to cheesy effect. The son of two gifted musicians — Dad’s a pop singer, Mom’s a classical cellist — gets “accidentally” stuck in foster care and ends up on the streets of New York. He falls in with Robin Williams, who is actually pretty engaging as a Fagin to a gaggle of musically gifted kids squatting in the abandoned Fillmore East theater. These Artful Dodgers don’t steal, they play music on the street and bring home the money that folks toss into their hats. Freddie Highmore plays the cutesy genius-kid, whose smile is so sappy you want to slap him. He somehow manages to enroll at Juilliard without transcripts or any form of ID, and later his composition is played by the New York Philharmonic in Central Park — where his long-lost parents are reunited through a set of downright Dickensian coincidences. The kid’s “opus” sounds remarkably like Mr. Holland’s, which is to say, straight from the Yanni playbook.

♪½  A Song to Remember (1945). Typical for music-themed films of early Hollywood, this biopic is as much fabrication as fact and features a wildly miscast lead: burly, macho Cornel Wilde as the frail Frédéric Chopin. Merle Oberon is the perhaps too-beautiful George Sand. Like so many classical flicks, it’s interminable — as if producers feel that to give a film gravitas you have to make it l-o-o-o-n-g. Not to be confused with two similarly titled (and similarly lightweight) composer biopics: Song of Love(1947) with Katherine Hepburn as Clara Schumann (!), Robert Walker Sr. as Brahms and Paul Henreid as Robert Schumann; and Song Without End (1960) with Dirke Bogarde as Liszt.

♪½  Copying Beethoven (2006). Wittingly or not, this film diminishes Beethoven considerably, by making him into a platitude-spouting boor whose scores are sometimes “corrected” by his pretty young (female) copyist. Sure there are stories of Beethoven’s behavior being at times flamboyant, but this movie cranks them up to full volume. Ed Harris’ performance is not terrible (though Diane Kruger is pretty lame as the copyist), but the title role is so ineptly written (by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) that neither he nor the wonderful director Agnieszka Holland can rescue this mess. There are a few nice scenes, like the conclusion to the Ninth Symphony premiere, where the deaf composer doesn’t notice the thunderous applause until he turns around to face the audience. But then, we’ve already seen that sequence in just about every Beethoven movie ever made.

♪½  Music of the Heart (1999). “If you liked Mr. Holland’s Opus, you’ll love Music of the Heart.” Yup, that pretty much sums it up. Heart-warming. It’s not an awful movie, really, and Meryl Streep of course lends panache — though it’s by no means one of her better roles. It’s the true story of a determined school teacher in Harlem, Roberta Guaspari, who built a remarkable music program to teach violin to ghetto kids. The program got a lot of respect, ultimately, when the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern and Arnold Steinhardt (he of the Guarneri Quartet) got wind of it and actually performed with Guaspari’s kids on the stage of Carnegie Hall. (The moment is reenacted for the film, with a dozen famous violinists lined up onstage.) But there’s a preachy, “save the arts in schools” tone throughout. Oddly, I found Streep’s saucy, good-natured interaction with her two wiseacre sons (Charlie Hofheimer and Kieran Culkin) the most natural and interesting part of the film.

♪½  Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1992). Pretentious and tedious, this set of brief vignettes falls apart in about 20 minutes. The problem is that Gould’s own audio and video is still readily available, and it is a thousand times more interesting than some random director’s experimental version of it. The guy who plays Gould (Colm Feore) sounds snotty and ostentatious instead of witty and brilliant. If you really love Gould, go online and find several DVDs of the Canadian genius himself, talking, pontificating and performing. (Bruno Monsaingeon’s innovative 2005 documentary Glenn Gould: Hereafter is a good start.)

♪  Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995). Another l-o-o-o-n-g movie (143 minutes!) tracing the whole freakin’ life of a high school music teacher whose dream is to complete his symphonic masterpiece. Richard Dreyfuss lends class to this rambling epic, as do Olympia Dukakis as the school principal and William H. Macy as the square, stern, flat-top-wearing vice principal. But as we begin to realize that Holland is “writing his opus” on the lives of his students through the years, we know that someone is going to say something saccharine about it eventually — it’s like a car wreck you can’t stop. Sure enough: “We are your symphony, Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.” Gag. When the orchestra does offer up a performance of the “symphony,” it’s enough to make any bona fide music lover cringe. (Those who can, do, those who can’t…)

♪  Hilary and Jackie (1998). This film purports to tell the “real story” behind the rivalry between flutist Hilary du Pré and her much more famous cellist sister Jacqueline. It’s based on a tell-all memoir by Hilary and her son, and it shows Jacqueline in a quite unflattering light — vain, jealous, hysterical, sexually off-kilter. I can’t comprehend the acclaim that greeted this film, except to say that film critics are generally as daft about music as Hollywood is. The real-life Jacqueline succumbed to MS at age 42, and thus can’t defend herself, which is why I found the whole thing a bit icky. (Daniel Barenboim and other musicians have protested the film’s content.) The story is told in two parts, one from Hilary’s viewpoint and one allegedly from Jackie’s — but of course both parts are based on Hilary’s book!

♪  Un couer en hiver (1995). Jules et Jim meets The Red Violin meets … oh, never mind. Daniel Auteuil gives an extraordinary performance as a violin maker whose business partner is having an affair with a beautiful young fiddler (Emmanuelle Beart). Beart is fascinated with Auteuil’s cold exterior and tries to melt Auteuil’s “frozen heart.” Thus arises a would-be love-triangle, which is not as interesting as you might think. Maddeningly slow-moving, the film starts from a nice premise but fails to reach anything approaching a satisfying conclusion.

♪  Taking Sides (2001). This drab, disappointing film is directed by the great Hungarian István Szabó, who made the wonderfulMephisto. It’s a dour story of the de-nazification of the conductor Wilhelm Fürtwängler, with Harvey Keitel as the one-dimensional American military officer charged with determining what should happen to him. The situation of artists who stayed in Germany during the Nazi period is perhaps more complex than this movie seems willing to take on: If anything it fails to explore adequately the nature of the musical values Fürtwängler felt were more important than politics — or that he hoped, however misguidedly, could serve as a counterfoil to Nazism. Heavy stuff, dealt with heavy-handedly.

♪  Shine (1996). The true-life story of David Helfgott, an Australian pianist who suffered from schizophrenic disorders (and apparently still does), but had a brief concert career despite his dubious gifts at the keyboard. Exploitative and misguided, and by all reports a cruel distortion of the character of the pianist’s father, this film should probably never have been made. Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of Helfgott, who in the wake of the film’s release experienced brief fame. The scene toward the beginning where he breaks down in the middle of “Rach 3” is pretty cool, but things go downhill from there.

BOMB.  Song of Norway (1970). Andrew L. Stone wasn’t content to make the worst composer film ever, he had to make what is without doubt one of the worst big-production films in the history of cinema. It’s so bad that I have actually attended a party in which it was shown just so that we could laugh hysterically through its insipid 142-minute length. (Make sure you serve up plenty of martinis.) Every cliché about a composer’s life is found here, in spades, and the beautifully filmed scenery is meager compensation for your pain.

BOMB. Cello (2005). Creepy, disturbing and barely comprehensible at times, this is the tale of two Korean girls who are friends despite being rival cello students. We see ghosts pop up now and then, or at least we think they’re ghosts, and kids die violent deaths — oh, but wait, they didn’t really die! Or did they? If that’s your cup of tea, this is for you. I found it twisted and perverse, and not in a good way. Even when the mystery is solved at the end, you really don’t know what the heck is going on — but by then you’re just happy it’s over.

BOMB. The Competition (1980). Cliché cliché cliché. Richard Dreyfuss (again! Mr. Holland started out as a concert pianist!) and Amy Irving are rivals at a piano competition and — guess what? Can you possibly guess? Yes, they fall in love. That’s pretty much all you need to know about this dopey film, which highlights every platitude about music, competitions and careers you can imagine. Some praised the actors for their plausible hand-sync during performance sequences, but that’s about the best thing you can say about the film.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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