Movies about Classical Music

Apr 1, 2013

April is Public Radio Music Month, an excellent opportunity for us to consider

the intersection of classical music (and musicians) and motion pictures.  Too

often, filmmakers have offered a distorted view of that world, but there have

been notable, memorable exceptions over the years.  Here are some that stand

out in my mind.

"Amadeus" (1984).  Yes, Tom Hulce plays Mozart pretty broadly, and Peter

Shaffer's Oscar-winning screenplay treats Salieri pretty unfairly, but this

worthy Best Picture winner benefits from Milos Forman's impeccable direction,

Sir Neville Marriner's conducting, Twyla Tharp's staging, the Prague

settings, and a wonderful mix of intelligence, entertainment, and the

timeless genius of Mozart.

"The Pianist" (2002).  Based on the memoir of the late Wladyslaw Szpilman,

this Roman Polanski film chronicles a Polish-Jewish musician's struggle to

survive the horrors of the Nazi occupation of his homeland.  Adrien Brody

(Best Actor in a Leading Role), Ronald Harwood (Adapted Screenplay), and

Polanksi all claimed Academy Awards for this compelling story about the

will to live and the inspiring power of music (starting with Chopin).

"Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" (1993).  Reflecting the structure

of Bach's Goldberg Variations, this sequence of vignettes adds up to a

fascinating, dramatized documentary about the life and career of the

brilliant, mercurial Canadian pianist.

"Tous les matins du monde" (1991).  Gérard Depardieu and his real-life son,

Guillaume, portray the famed Baroque era master of the viola da gamba, Marin

Marais, at different stages of his life.  One of my personal heroes, Jordi

Savall, composed the original music, and Yves Angelo's cinematography

beautifully (and authentically) captures the look and tone of the period.

"The Red Violin" (1998).  From François Girard, the same Canadian director

as "32 Short Films," this picture mostly succeeds at balancing its fictional

elements of music and art, history, culture, and sentimentality.  It features

a large international cast and an Oscar-winning score by John Corigliano,

with Joshua Bell as the solo violinist.

"Mahler" (1974).  The late British director Ken Russell established his

credentials in the 1960s, making a number of acclaimed television

documentaries on the subjects of composers and architects.  Even as his work

became more willful--even eccentric--his gift for visual splendor rarely

failed him.  This movie is not for purists, any more than his Liszt or

Tchaikovsky features.  However, it does give us a unique, poetic, richly-

detailed view of Mahler's personal life and career (told via flashbacks

during a train ride), with a generous sampling of his magnificent music.

"Farinelli" (1994).  The Italian actor Stefano Dionisi impersonates Carlo

Broschi, a renowned castrato of Handel's time.  (The Dutch actor Jeroen

Krabbé assumes the role of the great composer.)  As usual, the producers

take liberties with the characters and the narrative, but this is a lavish,

enjoyable production all the same.

"A Late Quartet" (2012). Set aside some of the histrionics in writer-director

Yaron Zilberman's movie.  For the most part here, we have an earnest,

intelligent, and remarkably authentic view of a fictional chamber ensemble

trying to survive to its twenty-fifth anniversary recital in New York.  A

strong quartet of actors (Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine

Keener, and Christopher Walken) portary the members of the Fugue String

Quartet, and the Brentano Quartet do the playing on the soundtrack.

"Unfaithfully Yours" (1948).  Rex Harrison is the renowned (fictional)

conductor who imagines his wife's infidelity in this inspired Preston

Sturges picture, often called "comic noir."  We get Rossini's "Barber of

Seville" Overture, a lot of snappy, witty dialogue, and some hilarious

slapstick, all set in the big-time world of classical music.  This is a

film classic in its own right.

"Vitus" (2006). This Swiss production, based on the true story of a

child prodigy, enriches its central musical narrative with reflections on

family, culture, contemporary society, and language.  A heartfelt movie,

with thoughtful direction and fine acting.  Teo Gheorghiu, the prodigy,

appears as himself in the movie.  He plays the piano on the soundtrack,

and he ultimately appears in concert with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra.