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.