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.

Amedeus. Click image to expand.

For those of us into music of the classical persuasion, gearing up to watch the new biopic Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky inevitably brings up thoughts of other movies about composers, which is to say, how lousy most of them are. For every Amadeus, a decent picture in its way, there are any number like Immortal Beloved, a Romance Channel travesty.

When contemplating the biopic we need to keep in mind that there's no such thing as a "biopic." The word implies "a biographical motion picture" that's not a documentary. "Biography" implies a true, factual narrative of a person's life (given the existential limitations of the "true" and the "factual"). That's why there's no such thing as a biopic.

"Art," Alfred Hitchcock said, "is life with the dull bits taken out." I would argue that real biography doesn't leave anything out, including the dull bits, or at least takes them into account. Beethoven, for example, spent an extraordinary amount of time proofreading engravings of his music, and few earthly endeavors are duller than proofing music. To omit that fact in a biography tends to create a false impression of his life. To include that in a biopic, on the other hand, tends to create a flop. Unlike life, a movie is a communion of art and commerce. Often an unholy communion. An illustrative example from my own experience: A Midwestern woman, a shrink in her day job, used my biography of Johannes Brahms to fashion a screenplay about his relationship with Clara Schumann. The young Brahms fell helplessly in love with Clara while her husband, Robert, his mentor, was still alive, locked up in a mental ward. That emotional morass is, potentially, great movie fodder. And we know a lot about it. But one thing we don't know about Brahms and the love of his life is whether or not they actually, ahem, did the deed. Entirely possible they had an affair in the usual sense, entirely possible they didn't. My screenwriter friend, an earnest and honest person, spent a lot of time anguishing over whether her script should show them in the sack. Finally, she hired a Hollywood agent to promote the screenplay. At that point her dilemma went away. Now the only question was not whether but how many times Clara and Johannes would get it on.

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Of course, in theory everybody knows biopics and other "historical" genres mess with the facts to make a better and more profitable story. But in practice most people seem to know that in the way they know pro wrestling is fake or know John Wayne wasn't really a war hero. They "know" those facts somewhere, but they'd prefer not to. They'd rather take fiction as fact because it's more glamorous, more dramatic, more fun. They assume the guy in Amadeus is the real Mozart and the guy in The Aviator is the real Howard Hughes.

We must, I entreat you, separate art and biography. Biopics have to work as story and to sell as product, not serve historical reality. But I add: There needs to be some foundation in reality, and there are lines that should not be crossed. Two movies about Beethoven, Immortal Beloved and Copying Beethoven, have characters who didn't exist and whom the story turns around: his mythical son and a mythical gal who copied his music and—get this—actually conducted the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. Lots of good intentions and the gamest efforts of able leading actors, respectively Gary Oldman and Ed Harris, could not breathe life into those turkeys.

Somehow, once in a while, it works. Amadeus is compelling, and it did one service to biopics about composers. By making Mozart into a hard-drinking and kinky rock star, which is not actually what he was, it helped move us away from the exalted-demigod treacle that once marked biopics from the '30s to the '60s. The process of demythologizing composers began in the '70s with three Ken Russell movies that got progressively more berserk, starting with the "pathetic" Tchaikovsky, then cutting Mahler down to size, and ending with the aptly named Lisztomania, starring Roger Daltrey of the Who and featuring Ringo Starr as the Pope. * (Russell also, as it happens, wrote a novel called Brahms Gets Laid.) Docile and reserved by comparison, Coco and Igor still benefits from these new paradigms. For better and for worse, we can now watch our heroes screwing their famous brains out.

Coco and Igor gets into high gear with a recreation of the legendary riot that broke out at the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky's ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). Contra legend, much of the audience outrage was in response not to the music but to Vaslav Nijinsky's neo-primitive choreography. In the film the music and dance of the premiere are true to the photos and accounts of the original, and the sequence is breathtaking: Le Sacre still looks, and sounds, revolutionary. Coco Chanel was actually at that performance, and, boy, was she impressed. In the film that eventually leads to her offer to the struggling Stravinskys—composer, tubercular wife, and four children—to live and work in her château. One thing leads to another, deeds are done, complications ensue. Actually, by the end I lost track of how many times. I said it was four; my friend said three. She's usually right about these things.

After the riveting ballet sequence the movie becomes maybe too slow and arty to be a hit at the multiplex. It's heavy on design and glorious with wallpaper. But the movie gets a lot of things right. Leading man Mads Mikkelsen has studied photos of Stravinsky in that period and he nails the look. In those days Stravinsky had an unhandsome but chiseled, fiercely self-contained face. He didn't look like the Romantic idea of a composer; he looked like a Brancusi. In the movie Stravinsky plays a period Steinway, and his playing has a curt, percussive quality that is exactly right. (Mikkelsen is probably faking the playing, but it's actually hard to tell.) The movie implies Stravinsky's heavy drinking started with Chanel's rejection. Although, as a Russian artist, he was probably devoted to the sauce all along and drank as if every night were the eve of Prohibition, I'd call that acceptable dramatic license.

In a film so much given to elegant stylization there are some moving moments, as when Catherine Stravinsky, who knows what's going on with her husband and more or less keeps her cool, tells him that she wakes up every morning to the smell of her own body rotting. Catherine says about Chanel: "She collects people." She's right. Icy Stravinsky has fallen hard, and Chanel the tigress (Anna Mouglalis) soon tires of him. Witness this volley of postcoital nastiness: "I am more successful than you," she says. "I am an artist," he replies. "You are a shopkeeper." Another line stuck with me. He tells Chanel about composing, "It's as if I open a door and the music is there." Stravinsky was virtually in awe of his own gift. He didn't know where it came from. Neither did Mozart. Both made the default guess, which was God. I don't know whether Stravinsky said that line about the door, but he did say this: "I am the vessel through which Le sacre du printemps passed." And, as in the movie, he probably kept a cross on his desk.

So Coco and Igor gets my vote as one of the better entries in the famous-composer genre. Like Amadeus, it handles the music well, as a wordless representation of the characters' inner lives and their fates. I'd call Coco and Igor equal to Amadeus—more accurate if less grounded on a compelling human dilemma. Amadeus is not just about Mozart; it's playwright Peter Schaffer's meditation on a tragicomic reality in the business of art: The distribution of talent and genius is largely up to God. To all the other hardworking but unchosen stiffs, who are the vast majority of artists: If God smiles on a childish oaf instead of you, tough luck.