What's wrong with movies about composers.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 27 2010 10:06 AM

The Art of Getting Art on Film

What's wrong with movies about composers.

(Continued from Page 1)

There's another issue in movies about artists in particular. Fiction vs. reality is not the only problem. There's a standing assumption, especially in America, that artists are kind of stupid and art is basically stupid. It's not something that comes out of skill, experience, wisdom, and work; it just happens. Ed Harris's Pollock, which I think is a splendid film and in many ways true to the life of artists, makes that assumption just as Amadeus does: Artists are incoherent damn fools, but this incredible stuff somehow comes out of them. It's like Kobe Bryant shooting a three-pointer. It appears to happen from instinct and talent, and to a degree it does. Genius is founded on inborn gifts, but that's only the beginning. What you don't see is the thousands of hours of practice and coaching and experience that prepare Kobe's split-second tic of instinct. The same kind of often split-second instinct was behind every note Mozart wrote, and every note he wrote in a piece was done with awareness of every note he'd written up to that one and a lot of the ones he hadn't written yet.

Mozart revealed an almost supernatural talent right out of the cradle; he was rightly taken as a force of nature. But I think at least two composers wrote better and more original stuff in their teens than he did: Schubert and Mendelssohn. Most of Mozart's greatest music was written in his last years, because in fact he worked like a demon (and played likewise), studied the work of theorists and other composers constantly, and knew how to make his models his own. His music grew steadily broader and deeper to his early end. In contrast to the myth, in his more ambitious pieces Mozart did a lot of sketching and revising. Compare that to Ed Harris's Jackson Pollock, staring at a blank wall for a week and then jumping up to paint a "masterpiece" without a thought in his head.

So are there in my jaded opinion any truly first-rate biopics about composers? From several possibilities, I nominate two. The first one concerns musicians most viewers have never heard of: Touts les Matins du Monde, about two 17th-century viola da gamba players and composers, the aptly-named Sainte Columbe and his lionized student Marin Marais. Among the saving graces here are Gerard Depardieu in the lead and a moving story. The power of music isn't stinted. The opening sequence is a marvelous five-minute closeup of Depardieu's face as he coaches students and kvetches and plays—or, rather, beautifully fakes playing—a melancholy air on the gamba while the music washes over his face. The movie is a debate between a worldly and an impossibly ideal vision of music. Both result in cruelties visited on loved ones. The real star of the film, occupying long stretches of the soundtrack, is the beautiful and mournful sound of the gamba. This is a biopic that shows music can carry a movie if the music is joined to subtle acting and atmospheric visuals (based on Baroque painter George de la Tour's candlelit nocturnes).

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My second nominee is a bit of a dodge in relation to my topic of movies on classical composers, because it's about Gilbert and Sullivan: Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy. It's not only about music but is one of the great films about the theater, up there with All About Eve. I'm only modestly into Gilbert and Sullivan, but I've seen the film six or seven times, and it gets better every time. I'm always amazed to find its version of "Three Little Maids from School" sending chills up my spine.

The story concerns the impending dissolution of the partnership and how from that near-collapse rose The Mikado, a Japanese yarn nobody could have anticipated. The movie follows the creation of the opera from its inspiration in a London fair on Japanese culture through the script, the rehearsals, the triumphant premiere. This is a film passionately but unsentimentally in love with the theater, every part of it: the creative process, the egos, the libretto, the music, the costumes, the money, the sex, the drugs, the craziness. It's also in love with how Victorian Brits talked, that mellifluous sarabande danced around actual emotion. I emerged from the movie declaiming to my wife: "I am sure I shall reap the benefit of your remonstrations in the fullness of time."

At the center of the story are depressive, withdrawn, sexless funnyman Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), and the lusty socialite Sullivan (Allan Corduner), who wants to get away from this frivolous stuff and compose a serious opera to inspire England. As always in a Mike Leigh film (he works for weeks in isolation, improvising with his cast, and puts his scripts together from the results) the actors, from bit parts to leads, inhabit their characters at a depth few directors have plumbed.

So once in a while biopics about artists succeed because they are grounded in some fashion in the reality of the creative life and the reality of art, and they are equally grounded on a compelling human story realized by directors, actors, writers, and cinematographers who know how to make a good movie. With the dull bits taken out. And the facts, to some necessary extent, be damned.

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Correction, July 28, 2010: This article originally misspelled the last name of Roger Daltrey. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.