Every subject matter under the sun – and beyond – has found its way into cinema over the years, and classical music is no exception. Many of the great composers have proved a draw for directors, unsurprisingly so given the range of eccentrics, geniuses, depressives, tyrants and romantics that fill the pages of any composer A-Z.
But portraying them well is always a challenge, particularly when they’re in the process of making music – just as no amount of training can turn an actor into a major-league sports star, likewise music-loving film-goers have grown accustomed to watching wooden, arrhythmic conductors or, less forgivably, hands moving in one direction on a piano… while the notes we hear clearly move in the other.
Despite this, most of the ‘composer films’ around are rarely less than engaging, and in some cases actually rather good. Here, we’ve picked ten of the better-known ones and given them our marks out of five.
We’ll begin with the most famous composer biopic of them all – not the first, but perhaps one of the glossiest and most thought-provoking. Composer Salieri (F Murray Abraham) is a physical and psychological wreck.
We learn about his guilty enmity towards Mozart through his confession to a priest: he holds himself responsible for the collapse of Mozart’s health and premature death, and is still eaten up with the realisation that, for all his own devotion to God and the Art of Music, he will never match the genius of the giggling and annoying Mozart (Tom Hulce).
Yet interspersed through all the silliness Peter Shaffer reveals, through the mouth of Salieri, genuine insights into the brilliance of Mozart’s music as he unfolds the glories of such works as the Wind Serenade: ‘On the page, just a pulse, like a rusty squeeze box, and then suddenly, high above it, an oboe – a single note hanging there, unwavering, until a clarinet took it over, sweetening into a phrase of such delight, filled with such unfulfillable longing, it seemed I was hearing the voice of God.’
Hats off to the lateral thinker who came up with the title Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky for a film about Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. That’s genius. The film itself is about the meeting of two rather more creative minds – and, subsequently, various bodily parts – as the designer invites the composer and his family to live at her villa near Paris in the 1920s.
Opening with a vivid reconstruction of the riotous Rite of Spring premiere, Jan Kounen’s cinematography is impressive throughout – though, to be honest, any director who can’t make a film about Chanel visually arresting really shouldn’t be in the business. But Stravinsky himself, played by Mads Mikkelsen, presents real problems.
If, based on the evidence of photos and written accounts, you’ve always thought of the Russian composer as being small, wiry and with an acidly sharp wit, think again – here he’s tall, muscular, and dismally, dismally dull.
Still, his magic works on Chanel. Though sadly, with the dialogue in French and Russian, puns about ‘going to bed with a hot Coco’ were never on the cards.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven: Immortal Beloved (1994)
It’s 1827. Beethoven is dead. Forget about the music, let’s cut to the chase – who was the mysterious unnamed woman with whom he was passionately in love? Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s first biographer and secretary, embarks on a quest for the ‘Immortal Beloved’, taking on the role of detective to track down his friend’s old flames.
As Beethoven in all his guises – from youthful romantic to older moody composer, blighted by deafness – Gary Oldman is convincing but strangely unmemorable. And, although this is a gift of a story, Bernard Rose’s film is unexpectedly bland, not to mention historically unsound.
The fabrication for plot purposes of a will leaving all Beethoven’s money to his ‘Immortal Beloved’ sets warning bells ringing that the final unveiling might be unconvincing. OK, there’s nothing wrong with an eye-opening ‘what if’ theory and a smidgen of dramatic licence, but a few more convincing clues along the way might have lifted this film from the mundane to something reasonably powerful.
Do the words ‘Ken Russell composer biography’ conjure up images of Glenda Jackson rolling naked around a train, or Roger Daltrey pounding the keys against a kaleidoscopic backdrop?
If so, Song of Summer may come as something of a disappointment (or, of course, relief), as the British director’s depiction of Eric Fenby’s introduction to the slightly dotty Delius household in France, and his five years assisting the ageing composer, is a restrained, tasteful and often charming affair – this may have something to do with the fact that Fenby himself had a hand in writing the script.
As the blind, immobile, yet somehow unpitiable Delius, Max Adrian is terrific, while Christopher Gable’s portrayal of the naïve Fenby is let down only by an accent no self-respecting Yorkshireman would give house room to.
And then there’s David Collings as the unremittingly high-octane Percy Grainger, who informs Fenby that living with Delius will mean he never wants to hear another note of the latter’s music again. In contrast, Song of Summer should have you wanting to hear more.
5. Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky: The Music Lovers (1970)
Tchaikovsky (lynx-eyed and fuzzy-bearded Richard Chamberlain) and his (fictional) boyfriend Count Chiluvsky horse about on an ice slide, drink and are merry before collapsing déshabillé chez Tchaikovsky.
Then follows the public premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1, performed creditably by Chamberlain while adoringly eyed by ‘Sasha’ (Alexandra Tchaikovsky, with repressed and far from sisterly passion), Madame von Meck, his future patroness, and Nina (Glenda Jackson), the woman whom Tchaikovsky disastrously marries.
Nicholas Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatoire (Max Adrian again, looking like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child-catcher), then pokes nasty fun at Tchaikovsky’s work even with some of the audience present… It’s all downhill from there.
For all the glorious cinematography, we see Glenda Jackson go so repeatedly OTT that we no longer care about the unintended cruelty Tchaikovsky visited on Nina by marrying her. The notorious nude railway carriage scene is exceeded when, abandoned by Tchaikovsky, Nina tries to seduce his ‘rival’ Rimsky-Korsakov, and beds Borodin to the strains of Kismet. Oh dear.
And if you’re now interested in seeing how Ken Russell’s career in composer biopics really went off the scale, try Lisztomania. After the success of rock opera Tommy (also 1975), Russell casts The Who’s Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt – in an effort to compare the effects of Liszt’s playing on swooning 19th-century ladies to that of the teenage ‘mania’ induced by rock idols.
Russell’s Liszt embodies the qualities of a mid-’70s rock star, complete with T-shirted roadies and groupies, and the film loosely draws on a fictional account by Marie d’Agoult of her affair with the composer. But this is where any serious comparison ends.
The whole project becomes luridly overindulged by Russell’s own preoccupations: Nazis, Catholics, garish outfits and obscene props. That said, it’s not without bizarre humour: take the opening’s crazy metronome-topless-banana-eating-swordfight scene, where Liszt duels with Count d’Agoult; or where the vampire Richard Wagner (Paul Nicholas) is brought back to life as a Hitleresque Frankenstein’s Monster by a Norse god, played by prog rock’s Rick Wakeman.
Hugh Grant stars as the floppy-haired male lead in a romantic comedy. Sound familiar? Yes, even when he’s portraying one of the great 19th-century composers, there’s a taste of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral about it. But as similarities go, that’s about it.
A refined, strait-laced and physically weak genius, Chopin’s not your classic Hollywood hero. It’s his musical charms that bewitch the notorious novelist George Sand (Judy Davis), famed for her many lovers and penchant for dressing as a man.
She’s set on seduction – the crux of the film – pursuing Chopin to a French country house party. Cue an irrepressible performance from Emma Thompson as party host Duchess D’Antan, who dreams of the Bohemian artistic life.
Back in Paris, without Thompson, the film lags a little, although Grant and Davis put in fair performances as the love-struck artistic pair (although why didn’t someone slam Grant’s dubious Polish accent firmly under the piano lid, never to be heard again?).
Historical accuracy isn’t high on the agenda, but there are enough declarations of love, betrayals, pistol duels, games of croquet and amateur theatricals to make this period drama enjoyable.
Early dawn, and Puccini (Robert Stephens) is out on his boat on lake Torre del Lago shooting ducks, while his voice-over grumbles about how the critics damned his operas La Bohème and Madam Butterfly.
The relevance of this to what follows is not immediately obvious, as we move onto a well-observed portrayal of the disintegrating emotional state of Puccini’s wife, Elvira, as she, knowing her husband’s philandering ways, becomes convinced he is carrying on with their maidservant, and wrongly slanders her with disastrous results.
Intercut with this are snippets of a documentary on director Tony Palmer himself directing a production of Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, and the film makes the case, both compelling and convincing, that the opera was a direct outcome of this tragic episode in the composer’s life – a shame Palmer felt the need to hammer the point home by having Puccini and villagers speaking lines from the opera during a key funeral scene.
Then – aha! – finally we get the point of Puccini’s voice-over about critics, as Palmer parades the damming reviews of his own production of Turandot…
9. Marin Marais: Tous les matins du monde (1991)
Marin Marais isn’t exactly a household name. Nor is much known about his early life, at least not enough for a historically faithful biopic. But perhaps that’s why Alain Corneau’s film about the French Baroque composer and viol player – a legend in his time – is so outstanding.
Beautifully filmed, impeccably acted, Tous les matins du monde tells the story of Marais’s difficult relationship with his teacher, Sainte-Colombe, as imagined by novelist Pascal Quignard. Sainte-Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle), so the story goes, could make the viol imitate all the sounds of a human voice, from a young girl’s sigh to an old man’s cry.
Marais, in contrast, had all the virtuosic technique but didn’t understand the true nature of music. So begins a lifelong struggle between the two, complicated when Marais (Gérard Depardieu when old, his late son Guillaume Depardieu when young), falls for his teacher’s daughter. With a haunting soundtrack performed by violist Jordi Savall, the only blot is the actors’ implausible musical miming – if you want a film about a composer that’ll intrigue, entertain and move you, this is the one.
Today, proposals for a TV series about Richard Wagner almost as long as his Ring Cycle would probably be met with bewilderment by producers.
Back in the ‘good’ old days, though, this nine-hour epic was clearly greeted with delight, if its stellar cast is anything to go by: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Richardson, with Richard Burton in the role of the composer himself.
Even William Walton (yes, that William Walton) gets a cameo as King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, snoring and ranting through a tedious concert of band music. As one might expect from Burton, Wagner comes over as a wily, determined, frankly chippy so-and-so, but as a rather insecure figure, too.
But his struggles against his own insecurities, rival composers, political views and several ample-cleavaged lovers en route to triumph at Bayreuth make for a long but spectacular watch. The Wagnerian soundtrack, conducted by Georg Solti, is suitably grandiose.
This article originally appeared in the Christmas 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine