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What’s wrong with movies about composers

“Art,” Alfred Hitchcock said, “is life with the dull bits taken out.” I would argue that real biography doesn’t leave anything out, including the dull bits, or at least takes them into account. Beethoven, for example, spent an extraordinary amount of time proofreading engravings of his music, and few earthly endeavors are duller than proofing music. To omit that fact in a biography tends to create a false impression of his life. To include that in a biopic, on the other hand, tends to create a flop. Unlike life, a movie is a communion of art and commerce. Often an unholy communion. An illustrative example from my own experience: A Midwestern woman, a shrink in her day job, used my biography of Johannes Brahms to fashion a screenplay about his relationship with Clara Schumann. The young Brahms fell helplessly in love with Clara while her husband, Robert, his mentor, was still alive, locked up in a mental ward. That emotional morass is, potentially, great movie fodder. And we know a lot about it. But one thing we don’t know about Brahms and the love of his life is whether or not they actually, ahem, did the deed. Entirely possible they had an affair in the usual sense, entirely possible they didn’t. My screenwriter friend, an earnest and honest person, spent a lot of time anguishing over whether her script should show them in the sack. Finally, she hired a Hollywood agent to promote the screenplay. At that point her dilemma went away. Now the only question was not whether but how many times Clara and Johannes would get it on.

… Somehow, once in a while, it works. Amadeus is compelling, and it did one service to biopics about composers. By making Mozart into a hard-drinking and kinky rock star, which is not actually what he was, it helped move us away from the exalted-demigod treacle that once marked biopics from the ’30s to the ’60s. The process of demythologizing composers began in the ’70s with three Ken Russell movies that got progressively more berserk, starting with the “pathetic” Tchaikovsky, then cutting Mahler down to size, and ending with the aptly named Lisztomania, starring Roger Daltrey of the Who and featuring Ringo Starr as the Pope. (Russell also, as it happens, wrote a novel called Brahms Gets Laid.) Docile and reserved by comparison, Coco and Igor still benefits from these new paradigms. For better and for worse, we can now watch our heroes screwing their famous brains out

…Mozart revealed an almost supernatural talent right out of the cradle; he was rightly taken as a force of nature. But I think at least two composers wrote better and more original stuff in their teens than he did: Schubert and Mendelssohn. Most of Mozart’s greatest music was written in his last years, because in fact he worked like a demon (and played likewise), studied the work of theorists and other composers constantly, and knew how to make his models his own. His music grew steadily broader and deeper to his early end. In contrast to the myth, in his more ambitious pieces Mozart did a lot of sketching and revising. Compare that to Ed Harris’s Jackson Pollock, staring at a blank wall for a week and then jumping up to paint a “masterpiece” without a thought in his head.

via What’s wrong with movies about composers. – By Jan Swafford – Slate Magazine.

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