The movies on classical music, from Amadeus to All the Mornings of the World
Many movies talk about classical music. If a few of them, such as Amadeus, are famous worldwide, others didn't have the same success... Let's have a tour.
"Classical and cinema": when those two words are associated, it is more often to underline the connections between them and legendary couples (Thus Spoke Zarathustra of Strauss in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Symphony No. 5 of Mahler in Death in Venice...) than to talk the movies that deal directly with classical music.
Once we have approached that theme, what do we remember? The most famous: Amadeus of Milos Forman who had an international success; the most poetic: All the mornings of the World of Alain Corneau. These two majestic oaks hide a forest filled with movies, more or less original, more or less forgotten. Their subject can be a composer ((Mahler of Ken Russell, Ludwig van B. of Bernard Rose…), a piece (La Belle Meunière of Marcel Pagnol and Max de Rieux) or a performer (Taking Sides of Istvan Szabo).
While Amazon offer a series called "Mozart in the Jungle", here is a small, non-exhaustive list of some initiatives, sorted in three categories: first, the legendary movies, the ones that every music lover has at least heard of; second the commercial failures, those who tried hard to be liked but didn't succeed; finally a third category of the cinematic UFOs, movies that are unclassifiable, sometimes of a doubtful taste, at the line between genius and "junk".
The legendary movies
Baroque music has particularly been spoiled by the cinema, thanks to two legendary movies: The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and All the Mornings of the World of Alain Corneau.
The first one was created in 1967. It is a production of Johann Sebastian Bach's wife's life, from the The Little Chronicle that was wrongly attributed to her. On top of the artistic quality of the movie and the succession of static shots that compose it, The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is especially remarkable for the actors: the part of Johann Sebastian Bach is played by Gustav Leonhardt and the Prince von Anhalt-Köthen by no other than... Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
More recently (1991) and maybe with more success the The Chronicle... had, All the Mornings of the World talks about the life of composer Martin Marais (played by Gérard and Guillaume Depardieu) and his relation with Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle). The movie, who brought more than 2 millions people to the French cinema theaters, won seven Césars (including Best Picture) and widely participated in increasing the fame of the viola de gamba and the notoriety of its interpret, Jordi Savall.
With its 8 Oscars (including Best Picture) and a total of about forty prizes, Amadeus of Milos Forman is without a doubt the most famous movie of the history of cinema that talks about a composer. Despite the great liberties that were taken, compared to reality, Amadeus had the merit of transforming the life of Mozart into an almost epic and to give a face (and a laughter) to the composer. When it was released in France, the movie attracted more than 4,5 millions people into the theaters.
There is also the cinematic mention (largely fictionalized) of the life of George Gerswhin: Rhapsody in blue. Directed in 1945 by Irving Rapper (The Adventures of Mark Twain, Marjorie Morningstar…), it stars Robert Alda in the role of the composer and was the first American Classic to take has its subject the life of a composer. It is also the first commercial success (after the failure of Fantasia in 1940) of a biopic on a composer.
The commercial failures
Hugh Grant as Frédéric Chopin ? A reality tv onlooker as Anna Magdalena Bach ? Stéphane Bern playing Ludwig II of Bavaria adoring Wagner ? Far from the successes listed in the previous sections, some feature films were soon forgotten, despite a lot of efforts.
That was the case of the stereotyped romance between Frédéric Chopin (Hugh Grant!) and George Sand (Judy Davis) in the movie Impromptu by James Lapine (1991), where flowers and gardens compete with chromatic flights more or less tasteful. But it was also the case, even more, for Vivaldi, Un Prince à Venise that called Stefano Dionisi (famous for his interpretation of Farinelli), Michel Serrault, and Michel Galabru. But the result didn't meet expectations. Le Monde said it was "one of the worst movies", and for Le Nouvel Observateur, "Mozart is not the one being murdered, Vivaldi is". The critics were not very tender...
The director of that Vivaldi, Jean-Louis Guillermou, wouldn't have more success with l était une fois Jean-Sébastien Bach, nor with Celles qui aimaient Richard Wagner. In the first one, Christian Vadim plays alongside Elena Lenina, more famous for her participations in tv reality shows than for her acting talents. We also notice in this movie a (widely) adapted interpretation of the Cantatas of Leipzig sung by a choir of women... As for Celles qui aimaient Richard Wagner where Jean-François Balmer stand as a keen Wagner, we especially remember the memorable participations of Stéphane Bern playing Ludwig II of Bavaria, and of Roberto Alagna in Joseph Tichatschek. At the end, the movie is an undefinable production (except for Jean-Marc Proust in his column on Slate).
Almost the complete works of director Ken Russel could be labelled in this category: some because they are nutty, others because, precisely, they are not. His cinematic productions (Mahler, Lisztomania, The Music Lovers) and his productions for the BBC (Prokofiev - Portrait of a Soviet Composer, Elgar, Bartok, Debussy, Ralph Vaughan Williams or Elgar : Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle) all tell the life of a composer, but each in a different way.
If the symbolic flights of The Music Lovers (1969) are already far-fetched - Tchaikovsky is described in turns as cornered and brazen (see the video of the 1812 Overture), the director goes even further in Mahler (1974). In the train that takes him to his last home, Gustav Mahler remembers some moments of his life: his glory, his relationship with Alma, his childhood. During the fights with Alma, she dances a provocative French cancan on his coffin while he is alive before riding a gigantic gramophone... We also see his conversion to catholicism, taking the form of an initiation by Cosima Wagner, during which Mahler becomes Parsifal. A movie without limits, where the life of the composer becomes a vast field of symbolic explorations - as rich for some parts as it is absurd in others.
Mahler has been on many levels a step taking Russel for the crazy apotheosis: _Lisztomania (_1975). The subject of the movie is definitely the life of Franz Liszt, split in episodes (like for Mahler) but this time, he didn't care about following the timing of the biography. In Lisztomania, Franz Liszt is an intergalactic rockstar played by Roger Daltrey (founding member of The Who), kisses the feet of pop Ringo Starr (The Beatles's drummer)... In Great Britain, the very serious Guardian stated about Lisztomania the following verdict: "Nineteenth-century composer plus a spaceship, comedy zombie Hitler, Pope Ringo, and a giant penis: it must have sounded so good on paper".
As Jean-Marc Proust pointed out in his article: "the musical biopic is a difficult genre where successes are rare (...) It is probably better to profane the idols, as Ken Russell constantly did (...). At least, we know why we are laughing". Now, we just have to wait and see if Mozart in the Jungle will be legendary, a failure or a UFO...