I’m not often lost for words – when writing, at least – but right at this moment I’m blocked. I’m aware of the source of my difficulty, so let’s begin with that.
If I hadn’t been invited to a media screening of In Search of Beethoven followed by a Q&A session with the director, award-winning documentary film-maker Phil Grabsky, I probably wouldn’t have made the effort to see it. And would have denied myself one of the best movie experiences of this year – ah damn it, of any year.
I ask myself: what words would I have taken notice of, and from what reviewer, that would have swayed me to chase this one down? No answer comes. How, then, can I influence you, dear reader, to get your arse in front of this superb film so you can share the joy?
Well, let’s begin with the converted. If you love Beethoven, just go. You will not have seen anything on your man that comes close to this. I can try to break the movie down into its elements to give some idea of what to expect, but no analysis is going to effectively communicate the emotional power of those elements as Grabsky has combined them in this brilliant and profoundly affecting work.
First, there is the music. The film is full of it. Gabsky travelled Europe and the US in quest of breathtaking performances from some of the world’s best, and do they deliver! There is one sequence in which a wild-haired conductor all but explodes in a shower of sweat as he brings his orchestra to a tumultuous finale that has to qualify as one of the most dramatic and exciting moments I’ve seen on film.
In stark and thankful contrast to yer rock video (yawn), which generally includes footage of anything but the band actually playing, Grabsky focuses unashamedly on virtuoso musicians doing their thing. Why would you want cutaways to other stuff?
Fingers delicately running over the piano keys or thumping out the dramatic chords you associate with Ludwig van. The faces of the musicians as they channel the spirit of the composer through their instruments. That’s what I want to see, and that’s what Grabsky gives us. And make no mistake, there is plenty of room for cinematic art within the parameters of performance: the simple, elegant close-up captures of seesawing bows on violin strings, for example, are images to marvel at. Unforgettable.
There are riveting interviews with musicologists, virtuoso musicians and conductors – specialists of renown and authority whose collective insight into Beethoven’s music and conjecture on the vision and psychology that informs it open up new possibilities of appreciation for the uninitiated, and perhaps even for aficionados.
Grabsky builds a composite picture of Beethoven through these interviews, through biographical snippets and anecdotes from historical records, through portraits and sketches, scores in the composer’s hand full of crossings-out and alterations, on-locale shots of Beethoven’s haunts in Vienna and other parts of Austria, and a selection of narrated content from letters he wrote at various stages of his life (this is especially poignant – it’s as if the composer is speaking to us directly).
We are left with an impression of Beethoven the person that fleshes out the clichéd image of the demented genius glowering through his deafness, shackled to his miserable fate as a lonely, loveless, tormented figure heroically bearing his great gifts to eternity. With Grabsky’s treatment, he is given a humanity that adds new dimensions to his music.
French pianist Hélène Grimaud (mon Dieu, what an exquisite creature!) performs a section from the 5th Piano Concerto (I think) of profound sadness and beauty that seemed to speak to me directly of the composer’s transcendence through art of his personal suffering: his deafness and poor health that plagued him throughout his life, his inability to cross the loathsome boundaries of class regardless of his prodigious talent, his doomed attempts to win the love of aristocratic women, his lack of material comforts. I have never before experienced music “speaking” to me like that. It was overwhelming, a direct result of Grabsky’s contextualizing of Beethoven’s life and music.
This film has revived my interest in Beethoven’s work and in classical music generally. I don’t pretend to any more than a basic understanding of classical, and it does not have the immediacy and primal appeal of my first love, rock, but give it some time and enough listens and…oh, enough. Suffice it to say that Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 has not been out of my CD player since I saw In Search Of Beethoven. I look forward to reacquainting myself with my long-neglected collection of classical music, but for now, that Piano Concerto No 5 CD is staying right where it is.
If you’re a classical music buff, this movie is unmissable. If you’re not, it’s still unmissable. And to quote Peter Holland during his Q&A session with Phil Grabsky, “if you don’t like ‘classical’…how do you know you don’t?” Give it a go. There is no better place to start than by seeing this extraordinary film.
Perth folk can catch it at Cinema Paradiso, Northbridge – coming soon. If you can’t make it to the cinema, do the next best thing and buy the video, which is available online from Seventh Art Productions. Profits from your purchase will go towards financing Phil Grabsky’s next movie…and going by this one, that’s a worthy cause indeed.
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