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Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Maestros (originally published 2/95)

Motion pictures, right from the beginning, have always had a special relationship with music. Even in the silent film era you'd find some form of music wherever movies were exhibited. It might be anything from an orchestra or elaborate theater organ in the fancier venues to an out-of-tune upright piano of questionable lineage in the small-town theaters. Indeed, even the introduction of spoken dialogue could not replace the musical accompaniment. Instead, music and dialogue became more or less equal partners in the aural dimension of the movie experience.

Given this intimate relationship between movies and music, what could be a more natural subject matter for a film than the life of a composer? The current release of "Immortal Beloved" gives us the very talented Gary Oldman in the role of Beethoven, following in the successful footsteps of Tom Hulce's Mozart in "Amadeus" (1984). In fact, though, the tradition of movie biographies of famous composers goes much farther back than "Amadeus." Some of them haven't yet made it to home video, but a number of the better-known examples are available.

One caveat, however. Movie biographies of composers have one thing in common with all other movie biographies: you can't expect historical accuracy from them. Movies are show biz, after all, and life stories are simply too complex to make for good drama, even when the life in question is the fascinating story of a musical genius. So, if you want to learn the facts about the lives of the musical masters, the library will be your best bet. But if you just want an entertaining story and lots of good music, look for these titles.

"Rhapsody in Blue" (1945). Robert Alda (Alan's dad) stars as George Gershwin. One of the most interesting things about this picture is the supporting cast. Because the film was made only a few years after Gershwin's premature death, many of the composer's contemporaries were still around to portray themselves in the film. For example, Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who popularized the "Rhapsody in Blue," appears as himself, as does Oscar Levant, a close friend of Gershwin's. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer. As you will see, the film is a product of its time, proudly featuring Al Jolson performing "Swanee" in full, cringe-inducing blackface. O tempora, o mores...

"A Song to Remember" (1945). Cornel Wilde stars as Frederic Chopin. Merle Oberon plays his love interest, novelist Armandine Dupin, who is better remembered by her pen name, George Sand. The third principal cast member is the formidable Paul Muni as Professor Joseph Elsner, the music teacher who recognizes the genius of the young Chopin and helps launch his career.

"Song of Love" (1947). Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henried portray Clara Wieck Schumann and Robert Schumann in one of music's most poignant love stories. Clara Wieck was one of the finest pianists in Europe. Her marriage to Schumann, the romantic's romantic, undeniably impaired her musical career. At the same time, we have no way of knowing how much of Schumann's music might never have been written without her stabilizing influence in his life. The movie stretches the friendship between Johannes Brahms (played by Robert Walker) and Clara into a romantic interest on Brahms's part. (Show biz, remember?)

"Song Without End" (1960). Is it just me, or are you beginning to notice a trend in these titles? Maybe there's still time to change the Beethoven title to "Song of the Immortal Beloved." This one is about Franz Liszt, with Dirk Bogarde in the lead role. In a way, Liszt is an ideal subject for a movie, because he was something of a matinee idol in his day. His first and greatest acclaim came not as a composer but rather as a performer. He was, by all accounts, one of the most gifted pianists of all time. As we see his head being turned by the adulation of his fans, especially women, we can easily relate his story to those of more contemporary performers.

In fact, there's another film about Liszt that develops that aspect of his life even further than "Song Without End" does. Next week, I'll tell you about that film, and about the visionary filmmaker who largely built his early reputation on biographies of the great composers.

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