By Ray Sawhill
Of all the many different film genres, the composer biopic is one of the scroungiest. The tones of these films range all over the map, from the show-bizzy extroversion of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (George M. Cohan) to the hambone fruitiness of “Two Loves Had I …Puccini” to the many-layered high intellectualism of “Harvest of Sorrow” (Rachmaninoff and exile).
Despite this, one of the most remarkable aspects of the genre is how specific the expectations that we bring to these films are. Will the composer’s first professional triumph happen before or after he finds true love? And when will his long-suffering Significant Other finally lace into the composer for caring more about his music than he does about, y’know, people?
But perhaps the first question that tends to arise when we slip one of these films into the DVD player is the matter of factual accuracy. Simple moviegoing experience suggests that being “respectful of the facts” can sometimes translate into soporific viewing, while “completely untrustworthy” might very well go hand in hand with “devilishly entertaining.”
This is a truism well illustrated by Hollywood’s two biopics about Cole Porter. 1946’s “Night and Day” is a glossy lie that features Cary Grant at his heartiest and most hetero-seeming, while the 2004 “De-Lovely” is admirably true to the gay realities of Porter’s life. Yet “Night and Day” is a confident and enjoyable Technicolor fantasy, while “De-Lovely” is a droopy misfire.
It also needs to be said that there’s more than one way to deliver solid facts. George MacDonald Fraser makes an important point in “The Hollywood History of the World”: however untrustworthy the narratives they tell often are, history-based films nearly always supply visuals that are informative and well researched. If our modern minds are well stocked with images of what the Strauss family’s Vienna looked like and how people dressed when attending an opening at La Scala, it’s because moviemakers have created these pictures for us. Visuals are facts, too.
As with the movies of any genre, a big part of the fun of watching composer biopics is taking note of how the filmmakers are playing the genre’s game. If a romantic comedy needs to give its “meet cute” plot-point some charm, and if a gangster movie needs to make something tense out of the moment when the ambitious anti-hero declares his independence from his mentor, composer biopics need to address their own set of requirements. Here are some of them:
What is the container for the film’s incidents going to be?
Most lives don’t have dramatic arcs built into them, after all, and this is perhaps especially the case with the lives of creative types who spend a lot of time alone. To engage us and deliver some rounded-off satisfaction, feature-length biopics will almost always do some intensifying and heightening. It has to be said that, in this area, filmmakers in the field of composer biopics could show a little more invention than they often do. From “Mahler” to “The Double Life of Franz Schubert,” biopics of classical composers too often begin and end with the composer ill or dying and reviewing the events of his life.
To what extent should the filmmakers connect the composer’s creations with the events of his life?
It would be silly to pretend that unfortunate life-episodes always result in sad music, or that upbeat times always find expression in happy compositions. Yet if no connection can be made at all between a composer’s life-events and his music, what’s the point of the picture? Perhaps this conundrum helps explain why we haven’t yet seen a notable biopic about that unstoppable workhorse Haydn. Cheerful or gloomy, he seldom failed to crank out his expected allotment of music. Where’s the drama in that?
How to people the supporting cast?
Mothers, lovers, rivals and managers turn up with regularity, fathers and children rather less often. An admirer or rival can be useful as a point of entry for the audience. “Amadeus” — nothing if not an effective piece of audience engineering — provides the classic example of this, with Salieri (in real life an excellent and successful composer) used as a striving nothing for us fellow nothings to identify with as we gaze upon the bewildering wonder that is Mozart. “I am the patron saint of mediocrity!” Salieri cries, in case we’re so mediocre that we’ve failed to grasp the role he’s been assigned in the drama.
How to portray the creative process?
This question cuts to the heart of the genre. We don’t generally explore biographies of creative people simply because we’re curious about their lives; we’re often hoping to cozy up to Creativity itself. Films about Beethoven are especially frank about this motivation: getting to know Beethoven is portrayed as getting closer to God. Bernard Rose lays the divinity stuff on very thick in his Kubrick-influenced (and sexily enjoyable) 1994 “Immortal Beloved.” Lightning flashes, revulsions and raptures, funny shivers felt by female fans … God in all his incomprehensibility is manifesting Himself through the music of this cloddish, inspired peasant.
One of the peculiar characteristics of the genre is the way these films so often make a point of distinguishing between music in the abstract and popular tune-making — and do so not as a practical matter but as a big deal. Music in the abstract is inevitably understood to involve suffering, and to represent a Statement About Life. As a striking recent Norwegian biopic asks straight out in its title: “Edvard Grieg: What Price Immortality?” Audience-pleasing, by contrast, is regularly presented as mere entertainment, and as shoddy and transient. In a 1972 British miniseries about the Strauss family, even the busy, prolific and rich Johann Jr. finds time to mope about his lack of gravitas and dignity. “I sometimes wonder what I might have made of my talents had the music not come so easily,” he confides morosely to a visiting Brahms, who receives this confession with a skeptical, indeed disbelieving, look.
Just as marked in the genre is the near-omnipresence of the Romantic point of view. You almost never get away from it — and, like the art-versus-entertainment theme, it can get to be a bit much. Romantic myths are of course highly picturesque and dramatic; they also have their practical uses. In his book “Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography” (2005), John C. Tibbetts confesses that what cemented his interest in classical music as a boy was a moment in the colorful Chopin biopic “A Song to Remember.” The tubercular Chopin hunches over the piano and gives a cough. “A spot of blood spatters onto the keyboard” — and with that image, another music fan was born. It’s just that one can tire of the whole Genius/Divinity/Immortality value-set. More power, then, to directors Straub and Huillet for their resolutely dispassionate and avant-garde “Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach,” with Gustav Leonhardt as Johann Sebastian, piously devoting himself to the daily grind of his musical duties. But we could also use a few mainstream films that spotlight Classical, Baroque or folk points of view.
Rather surprisingly, the genre has a couple of specialists. The form’s grand old man is British director Ken Russell. He has a well-deserved reputation for flamboyance that sometimes obscures some major virtues: no matter how controversial they often are, all of his composer biopics are informed by a genuine understanding of music, as well as by a sympathetic (if often bitchy) appreciation of the souls of artists.
My favorite of Russell’s films is an uncharacteristically small and sober early example — a seventy-three-minute-long TV drama about Frederick Delius called “Song of Summer” (available as disc 3 of the Ken Russell at the BBC DVD package). Russell wrote the script in collaboration with Eric Fenby, who as a young man had worked as Delius’s amanuensis, and it’s an honest, indeed sometimes painful, portrayal of both a difficult character — Delius was far from the most lovable of men — and the heartbreaks and rewards of a creative life. A very moving, if bittersweet, classic, the film also addresses very directly one of the most basic of questions that making a biopic raises: do you try to cover the entirety of your subject’s life or try to nail his or her character by focusing on one well-defined episode? By dealing only with Fenby’s time with Delius, “Song of Summer” demonstrates how much can be extracted from the more modest approach.
Of Russell’s big-budget, sweeping and sensationalistic extravaganzas, the most successful is “The Music Lovers,” a 1970 feature about Tchaikovsky. It’s a gossipy and catty bash that’s full of the bursting-out-of-the-closet spirits of the ’70s. Where earlier film treatments of the Tchaikovsky story had sidestepped the question of the composer’s sexuality and instability, Russell and his star, Richard Chamberlain, dive right in. They give us a Tchaikovsky who’s a queeny hysteric, a morally reprehensible narcissist and a sponge. Right from the film’s first scene — an all-male romp in the snow — this Piotr is a lusty but fragile, hyper-gifted but overeager, anxiety-ridden train wreck waiting to happen.
Much of the film concerns his mad attempt to construct a heterosexual life for himself. These passages are harsh, ungenerous and probably unfair, but they’re also intense, funny and very entertaining. Antonina Miliukova, the woman who married Tchaikovsky, is portrayed as a money-hungry liar and climber with less than no interest in music. Their disastrous honeymoon is one of movie history’s more memorable nightmare sequences. When Antonina (Glenda Jackson) bares first her breasts and then her pubic hair to Piotr in an attempt to stir his lust, the poor man’s horror merges with the rocking of the train compartment the newlyweds are sharing into a gaudy image of erotic nausea. Russell delivers an unexpectedly vivid character in Antonina’s mother, wickedly conceived of as a Dickensian cockney so amoral that she cheerfully pimps out her own daughter. And the client roster the women service! “I’m quite famous, you know,” Antonina murmurs as one man nuzzles her neck. “Nearly as famous as you are, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.” Not long after, Mom ushers in a horny Alexander Borodin.
Russell went even farther with his campier instincts in his ultra-flamboyant, notorious 1975 “Lisztomania,” which proposes Liszt as a bare-chested glitter-rock icon. I didn’t enjoy it as much as “The Music Lovers,” but it’s certainly worth searching out. Full of nudity, disco-ready renditions of Liszt’s music and S&M fantasy sequences, the film comes — for better and worse — as close to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as any composer-biopic ever has. It’s also true to the general outlines of Liszt’s life, as well as amazingly shrewd about the nature of tabloid stardom.
The genre’s other specialist is another Englishman, the less well-known Tony Palmer. Palmer has his own kind of cinematic daring, and he has made as many pictures about composers as Ken Russell has. But he’s a far more intellectual figure; a typical Palmer film is a mélange of staged material, research scraps and New York Review of Books-style musings. Though his work is so reflective that it often puts me right to sleep, it still deserves to be sampled. My suggestion is to start with either “Testimony,” his engrossing and complex treatment of Shostakovich’s battles with Stalin, or “England, My England,” his movie about Henry Purcell. I liked the latter film somewhat better. It makes the Restoration era visually unforgettable; it portrays the composer as a robust and politically capable man of his era; and it takes the trouble to clearly lay out the options (court, church, theater) that a professional composer had at that time and in that place. Purcell’s lovely, proud music — supervised here by John Eliot Gardiner — is an ear-clearing pleasure.
Of the genre’s other major pleasures, let me urge you not to overlook:
- James Lapine and Sarah Kernochan’s 1991 “Impromptu,” a lighthearted, poignant caprice about the French novelist George Sand’s infatuation with Chopin. Judy Davis is at her comically overdramatic best as the scandal-courting Sand.
- “Elgar’sTenth Muse,” a beautifully sad two-hander about an infatuation between the elderly composer and a young violinist. James Fox and Selma Alispahic portray the conflicts between reserve and yearning, age and youth touchingly and trenchantly.
- Renato Castellani’s eleven-hour (or eight-hour, depending on the version you get hold of) long Italian production “The Life of Verdi.” Beautifully mounted and shot, as solid and responsible as any birth-to-death biography, it features a many-sided and fully felt portrayal of Verdi by English actor Ronald Pickup, and vocal performances by Callas, Nilsson and Pavarotti. One lesson to be learned from this beauty: if you’re going to take the all-inclusive approach to telling a composer’s life, it’s perhaps best to do it at the length of a miniseries.
- Abel Gance’s 1937 “Un Grand Amour de Beethoven.” Yet another variant on the Immortal Beloved theme, this stirring absurdity is enjoyable for its unbridled myth-making. Gance — famous for his barn-burning silent film “Napoleon” — delivers a virtuoso directorial performance. The film is full of poetic closeups and brilliant editing flurries; the legendary French actor Harry Baur gives a towering performance; and the passages conveying the composer’s growing deafness are as heartbreaking as can be.
But why talk so much about quality? Let’s admit flat-out that it’s impossible to sustain an interest in any movie genre if you haven’t learned how to relish its stinkers too. God knows that the composer-biopic genre has delivered no shortage of these. Two casting goofs to be marveled at:
- The arch and languorous Dirk Bogarde was a peculiar choice to play that outgoing whirlwind Liszt in 1960’s “Song Without End.” Bogarde spends the film looking as if he’d rather be making elegantly weary, poisonous remarks about some Countess’s fashion choices than delivering himself body and soul to his hordes of sweaty and salivating lady-fans.
- What was Agnieszka Holland thinking when she chose Ed Harris to star in her film “Copying Beethoven”? God knows you can’t criticize Harris for failing to give the role his all — but he is what he is, and this is surely the only Beethoven in movie history who comes across like a beer-swigging, iron-pumping ol’ Austin cowboy-hippie.
A special award for all-around badness beyond the call of duty has to be reserved for “Song of Norway,” a 1970 tribute to the life of Grieg made in the dirndls-and-clog-dancing style of “The Sound of Music.” This isn’t just the worst composer-biopic of all time, it’s one of the most terrifyingly wholesome movies ever made. With Grieg’s not-very-catchy songs presented as though he intended them to be sunny Broadway showstoppers, and featuring innumerable montages of buttercups, seagulls and waterfalls, “Song of Norway” may qualify both as essential Bad Movie viewing and as an all-time camp classic. May it be issued on DVD soon.
All of these movies deliver their share of pleasures, whether of the intended or unintended sort, and I look forward to many further entries in the field. There’s so much material yet to be explored, after all. William Byrd? Why not? Let’s hope someone takes on Leiber and Stoller. And is anyone else as eager as I am for “The Anton Webern Story”?
- The very lively website of Opera News, the magazine where this piece was first published.
- An appreciative and eloquent NYTimes obit of Ken Russell.
- An interview with Ken Russell himself.
- Tony Palmer’s website.
- Ed Harris talks about performing the role of Beethoven.
- Prof. John C. Tibbets is probably the world’s foremost authority on movies about composers. Here’s his book on the topic, and here’s an interview (PDF alert) with him.
©2009 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Opera News.