Primary tabs

When Music Lights up the Silver Screen

January 31, 2011

Featured Videos

Related Article

Top 10 Films about Classical Music (Part I)

November 17, 2010

Crowded Out of Eden: Composers and the Hollywood Dream

January 11, 2010

Although the memory of hearing 9-year-old Sarah Chang perform it in Walnut Creek is still crystal clear for me, other experiences of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto are simply too numerous to remember. It’s great music, but a veritable warhorse.

And yet, a few months back, at the screening of Radu Mihaileanu’s The Concert, which ends with a long segment of the Tchaikovsky, the burden of excessive familiarity fell away. In the context of the film, the music was fresh and deeply affecting, spreading muffled sniffles in the theater.

Let us speak, then, of movies extolling music and musicians. It’s a narrow focus, because writing about classical music’s intersection with films in general presents an embarrassment of riches. There are myriad soundtracks using (or abusing) classical music; conversely, music written for movies sometimes becomes perfectly good repertory for the concert hall. Examples range from Aaron Copland, Bernard Herrmann, Miklós Rózsa, and Erich Korngold to Philip Glass (especially Mishima, which deserves to be heard more often).

In the movies-about-music category, in recent times, besides the 2009 The Concert, Tous les Matins du monde (1991) comes to mind. Alain Corneau’s period drama focused on Marin Marais (played by Gerard Depardieu, in one of his best roles) and his recollections of his teacher, Sainte Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle).

Gérard Corbiau’s Music Teacher (1988), with José Van Dam, is not only a great film, but it also is responsible for the beginning of a love affair with Mahler for many a viewer. Van Dam’s performance of “Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen” in the film lives on and on.

Corbiau is also responsible for a personal favorite, which may not be to everybody’s liking: Farinelli (1994), about the greatest castrato of them all. Admittedly overdramatic, the story, the music, and Christophe Rousset’s musical direction combine for an eminently worthwhile film. The digitally merged voices of soprano Ewa Malas-Godlewska and countertenor Derek Lee Ragin provide a preternaturally faithful representation of the castrato voice.

Another Corbiau gem is his unjustly neglected film from 2000, The King Is Dancing (Le Roi danse), about Jean-Baptiste Lully (played by Boris Terral), especially in his dealings with the Sun King, Louis XIV (Benoît Magimel), and Moliere (Tchéky Karyo).

Biographies of musicians make up an entire subcategory, from the heavily fictional (Amadeus and the like) to faithful documentaries, with Ken Russell’s notable work somewhere in between: The Music Lovers (1970) about Tchaikovsky, Elgar (1962), Lisztomania (1975), and, perhaps the best of the lot, Mahler (1974).

Of Mahler, the latest film — not nearly equal to Russell’s — is the 2010 Mahler on the Couch, whose U.S. premiere this month in San Francisco was reviewed in Music News.

François Girard’s Red Violin (1998) is not one of my favorites, yet it’s a pretty good film, which certainly belongs here, with fair music by John Corigliano and gorgeous playing by Joshua Bell.

Let me get rid of a few misbegotten films (my opinion only, of course): the roiling Shine (1996), with Geoffrey Rush doing his best to portray poor, traumatized David Helfgott, an Australian pianist; Bernard Rose’s thoroughly amateurish Immortal Beloved (1994), with Gary Oldman as Beethoven (the composer, not the dog — let’s not even think of that “funny flick”); and Michael Haneke’s sick and sickening The Piano Teacher (2001), with Isabelle Huppert.

Going out on a high note with some of the best of the lot:

Katherine Hepburn as a mannered and yet thoroughly believable Clara Schumann in Clarence Brown’s Song of Love (1947); Tony Palmer’s incredible, eight-hour long Wagner (1983), with Richard Burton; one of several films called Impromptu, this one James Lapine’s 1991 comedy-drama about Chopin’s France, with Hugh Grant, Judy Davis as a perfect George Sand, and Julian Sands as Franz Liszt; and Christophe Barratier’s utterly charming The Chorus (2004).

And there are so many more ... Please join the discussion with additional nominations and comments (below), because there is no end to this topic.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].


Diva, of course, the cult film about an opera singer who refuses to be recorded and the mayhem that results when someone bootlegs a concert performance by her.

Wilhelmina Wiggins-Fernandez, who played the singer, and was a singer, does reasonably well and made "Ebben, ne andro lantano," the only aria from Catalani's La Wally that's worth hearing, famous, but see Callas, Tebaldi, etc. for far better performances.

What a huge topic!

The list of bad films omits soooo many: Pavarotti's embarrassingly dreadful turn in Yes, Giorgio and the recent and ludicrous Copying Beethoven come immediately to mind.

But one of the last century's great film directors, Charles Jones, was responsible for some classics on classics that were overlooked: The Rabbit of Seville, What's Opera, Doc?, Long-Haired Hare, Corny Concerto, etc. etc.

Only about twelve people in the world seem to have seen it, and much of the film is bizarrely ludicrous, but I have a soft spot for Bertolucci's "Luna," with Jill Clayburgh as a world-famous diva deaing (incestuously) with her beautiful 15-year-old heroin addict son. The scene in the opera house, both from the front of the house, backstage, and onstage is one of the greatest sequences in all of Bertolucci.

Well, a little late, but better than never: Tokyo Sonata's ending is ALL about the redemptive and other powers of music; the performance of Debussy's "Claire de lune" is, in context, a spellbinding moment. And let us not forget back when... "The Competition". (And silly me, I just re-watched "Diva" a week ago, and didn't think of it for this list)

A film loved and loathed, praised and pilloried: Hans Jürgen Syberberg's 1982 Parsifal. For some this film is an act of mortification, for others a brilliant experiment, for yet others a revelation.

Syberberg's Parsifal is to films extolling music what D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation is to cinema: both are milestones.

Philip Glass always makes cinema "about the music." His extensive filmography appears at

I love this film. Like a lot of films of the time that sought to be outrageous, it may not wear well. There is a "throw everything at the wall and let's see what sticks" quality to it. Velazquez, El Greco, Dresden, the Third Reich, the First Reich (literally-- with the crown of Charlemagne), a thousand years of German history, Byzantine icons, Marx, Nieztsche, Wagner himself and his death mask, Cosima, the Festspielhaus and Wahnfried, Ludwig's castles, Caravaggio's Medusa; some lip-synching actors (the Kundry is pretty sensational), a rather alarmingly handsome and sexy young Gurnemanz, the portable wound, and the infamous gender-switching Parsifal, among lots and lots of other things. ;)

It may be a model for everything about "regie" and post-modern production that everyone hates-- with the caveat that it is a film and not a stage production. And not a strictly a performance of Parsifal, but a performance, simultaneously presented with a huge meditation upon its meaning, and Wagner's meaning in the larger culture. Film is the only medium that can begin to present such a thing.

But I think it is the only production of *any* kind of Parsifal that even *begins* to *try* to address how *immense* the work is. Parsifal is a as much a monument of civilization-- for good and for ill -- as all the myriad other works of art the film references.


MEETING VENUS gave us much of Tannhauser with Glenn Close lip-synching Kiri Te Kanawa, in a black comedy of an opera production in preparation, featuring union squabbles, flirtations and assignations among the leading characters.

Loved DIVA and THE MUSIC TEACHER. Loved the Judy Davis and Hugh Grant IMPROMPTU. Loved SING FASTER (The Stagehands' Ring Cycle) and the documentary THE GOLDEN RING about Solti's 1st complete LP Ring Cycle. Enjoyed the 10 1/2 hour Life of Verdi on PBS 25+ years ago but wish narrator Burt Lancaster had pronounced "Verdi" in an Italian accent instead of English.

My favourite film about a musician is IMMORTAL BELOVED, not because of how it might illuminate music & its meaning but simply because it's the most romantic thing i have ever seen. Even thinking about it is like a wakeup call to my tear ducts. I have had a different relationship ever since with several Beethoven compositions, particularly the 5th Piano Concerto.

But the most powerful film for me, that extols music is Hitchcock's second version from 1956 of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. This film is nothing less than a parable about human intellect and planning. We think we can plan and think. What's music in this world? Music seems to signal a rupture point, where the rational and the irrational meet. Music is a channel for the divine (Schopenhauer would love this film), stronger than anything human, yet quintessentially human.

There are two key musical scenes. In both cases the performance serves as a kind of distraction while something completely different is enacted, and in both cases, while mayhem ensues momentarily, justice is done.
1) Music at its most unruly: a murder, carefully planned for the loudest climax of a large orchestra composition is thwarted by the simple yet irrational sound of a woman's scream, and the assassin confounded.
2) Music is at its simplest and most primal: a song (Doris Day) conceals a surreptitious search for a child. The child hears his mom, and his captor takes pity. The child whistles along (he's locked in a room upstairs). Shortly thereafter another would-be killer also dies.

The title is perhaps a signal. We all know too much, our minds are too full of plans and intentions, and --at least in this film-- they go completely awry.

Simon Cellan Jones' Eroica is a must-see for Beethoven fans. Among Ken Russell's music-related films, I think the one about Delius, Song of Summer is the best.

And for those, unlike my present self, who like to wallow in Mahler, there's always the film Death in Venice.

My favorite of all title themes is Michael Small's for Mountains of the Moon, a masterpiece if only Bob Rafelson had found a less-limp way to end it.

And let's tip our hats to John Barry, a fine theme-writer who died the other day.

[NB: the writer teaches college courses about the relationship between music - classical and otherwise - and movies]

Don't forget Sondheim's personal favorite, "Hangover Square," with Bernard Herrmann's "Macabre Concerto" as the piece being composed by protagonist.

Of course if we get into documentaries we'll be here all day. But there are mockumentaries - Fellini's "Rehearsal," for instance. And where to draw the line between a biopic and a film "about music"? Where does "Fantasia" fit in?

There is Edward Ulmer's "Carnegie Hall" with nearly complete performances by about a dozen top artists of the 30s & 40's set in a fictional frame (though they play themselves - Rubenstein's one line as he walks offstage "tell the young man to practice his Bach"--or something very close to that, or Fritz Reiner with a fidgety Heifetz in the Green Room "Don't mind Jascha, he's always a pain before a performance," etc)

Interesting that "Death In Venice" is mentioned by a reader. The soundtrack is Mahler, but the story is still Mann's Aschenbach; and it's about homosexuality, or at least closeted homosexuality, creativity, and disease.

Mann's linking of creativity and disease is one of his lifelong main themes. There are at least two films of Mann's "Dr. Faustus," neither doing the original justice, but the later one, with Jon Finch, is not at all bad.

I finally saw "Copying Beethoven" and found it not nearly as bad as you suggest. Ed Harris's LvB is much more believable than Gary Oldman's, and when it comes to imagining meeting LvB, who cares about silly plot elements? It's like a dream of time-travel. I particularly like the scene after the premiere of the 9th when LvB explains that the Grosse Fuge is *supposed* to be ugly :-)

I have to mention my favorite BBC mini-series the near-perfect, lovely "All The Small Things" with Susan Lancashire, about competing choirs from a small village. A foreshadowing of "Glee," perhaps, but with brains and wit and characters and plot that are all strong - cannot understand why they never did a second season - but I expect it had to do with expenses and contracts, not popularity or "success." And while I'm at it, the other one - "The Choir" with (yay!) Jane Asher, Alan Rickman, and an all-star cast complemented by a ravishingly beautiful boy-choir - a bit soap-operish, but strong & musically powerful.

Can't remember the name right now, but there was a delightful film with Alan Rickman - he's the protagonist's dead husband, appearing as a ghost who plays the cello to his wife's piano accompaniment. OK name coming... "Truly, Madly, Deeply" or something close to that.

Back to categories. It seems to me that films clearly differentiate themselves by what the musical elements are supposed to do. In the case of most biopics, even "A Song of Love," the music is there to give verisimilitude and appropriate framing to the narrative biography. Some biopics pay attention to a composer's struggles with musical problems, tho most don't.

When you dispense with the biographical film, and move to films that are "about music" in that music or a composition is part of the essential narrative drive, you have films like "Diva" at the far end, since music itself is only one element of the plot, and (particularly if you know the book) Alba and Serge are the main characters in what is essentially a caper film in the tradition of "Don't Shoot the Piano Player." But what's at the near end?

Personally, I enjoy the half-dozen best from the most overlooked great star of the late-30's & 40's, Deanna Durbin. Her "Nessun Dorma" is lovely (go to YouTube) as is her "Un bel di" (ditto) and, and, and. She was such a star at the time, top box office draw, that she saved Universal from bankruptcy; and her films are usually unpretentious and well-done, with good taste and direction, even if the rest of the cast couldn't match her.

I also admire her strength of character in turning her back on the Hollywood life-style, packing her bags and family at the height of her career and moving to Southern France, where she still lives today having NEVER given a single interview (out-Garboing Garbo!).

Unfortunately the timing was just a few years off - too early to be a nostalgic favorite of the Baby Boomers, and the accompanying LACK of drama in her personal life means that there are very few DVDs and a rapidly vanishing cohort of VHS tapes of her body of work. I hope there's a Durbin archive somewhere...

There was a mention of Hepburn as Clara Schumann in a 1947 movie.
Going back to 1945 there was Rhapsody in Blue - Robert Alda playing George Gershwin; also, Cornel Wilde, an unlikely choice to play Chopin
in A Song to Remember (Merle Oberon as George Sand). Wilde was an
athletic actor who apparently was convincing enough as Chopin to be
nominated for an Academy Award for best actor. His competitors were
Crosby, Kelly, Peck, and Milland - Milland won.