The Art of Getting Art on Film

What’s wrong with movies about composers.

For those of us into music of the classical persuasion, gearing up to watch the new biopic Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky inevitably brings up thoughts of other movies about composers, which is to say, how lousy most of them are. For every Amadeus, a decent picture in its way, there are any number like Immortal Beloved, a Romance Channel travesty.

When contemplating the biopic we need to keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a “biopic.” The word implies “a biographical motion picture” that’s not a documentary. “Biography” implies a true, factual narrative of a person’s life (given the existential limitations of the “true” and the “factual”). That’s why there’s no such thing as a biopic.

“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.

Of course, in theory everybody knows biopics and other “historical” genres mess with the facts to make a better and more profitable story. But in practice most people seem to know that in the way they know pro wrestling is fake or know John Wayne wasn’t really a war hero. They “know” those facts somewhere, but they’d prefer not to. They’d rather take fiction as fact because it’s more glamorous, more dramatic, more fun. They assume the guy in Amadeus is the real Mozart and the guy in The Aviator is the real Howard Hughes.

We must, I entreat you, separate art and biography. Biopics have to work as story and to sell as product, not serve historical reality. But I add: There needs to be some foundation in reality, and there are lines that should not be crossed. Two movies about Beethoven, Immortal Beloved and Copying Beethoven, have characters who didn’t exist and whom the story turns around: his mythical son and a mythical gal who copied his music and—get this—actually conducted the premiere of the Ninth Symphony. Lots of good intentions and the gamest efforts of able leading actors, respectively Gary Oldman and Ed Harris, could not breathe life into those turkeys.

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.

Coco and Igor gets into high gear with a recreation of the legendary riot that broke out at the 1913 Paris premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). Contra legend, much of the audience outrage was in response not to the music but to Vaslav Nijinsky’s neo-primitive choreography. In the film the music and dance of the premiere are true to the photos and accounts of the original, and the sequence is breathtaking: Le Sacre still looks, and sounds, revolutionary. Coco Chanel was actually at that performance, and, boy, was she impressed. In the film that eventually leads to her offer to the struggling Stravinskys—composer, tubercular wife, and four children—to live and work in her château. One thing leads to another, deeds are done, complications ensue. Actually, by the end I lost track of how many times. I said it was four; my friend said three. She’s usually right about these things.

After the riveting ballet sequence the movie becomes maybe too slow and arty to be a hit at the multiplex. It’s heavy on design and glorious with wallpaper. But the movie gets a lot of things right. Leading man Mads Mikkelsen has studied photos of Stravinsky in that period and he nails the look. In those days Stravinsky had an unhandsome but chiseled, fiercely self-contained face. He didn’t look like the Romantic idea of a composer; he looked like a Brancusi. In the movie Stravinsky plays a period Steinway, and his playing has a curt, percussive quality that is exactly right. (Mikkelsen is probably faking the playing, but it’s actually hard to tell.) The movie implies Stravinsky’s heavy drinking started with Chanel’s rejection. Although, as a Russian artist, he was probably devoted to the sauce all along and drank as if every night were the eve of Prohibition, I’d call that acceptable dramatic license.

In a film so much given to elegant stylization there are some moving moments, as when Catherine Stravinsky, who knows what’s going on with her husband and more or less keeps her cool, tells him that she wakes up every morning to the smell of her own body rotting. Catherine says about Chanel: “She collects people.” She’s right. Icy Stravinsky has fallen hard, and Chanel the tigress (Anna Mouglalis) soon tires of him. Witness this volley of postcoital nastiness: “I am more successful than you,” she says. “I am an artist,” he replies. “You are a shopkeeper.” Another line stuck with me. He tells Chanel about composing, “It’s as if I open a door and the music is there.” Stravinsky was virtually in awe of his own gift. He didn’t know where it came from. Neither did Mozart. Both made the default guess, which was God. I don’t know whether Stravinsky said that line about the door, but he did say this: “I am the vessel through which Le sacre du printemps passed.” And, as in the movie, he probably kept a cross on his desk.

So Coco and Igor gets my vote as one of the better entries in the famous-composer genre. Like Amadeus, it handles the music well, as a wordless representation of the characters’ inner lives and their fates. I’d call Coco and Igor equal to Amadeus—more accurate if less grounded on a compelling human dilemma. Amadeus is not just about Mozart; it’s playwright Peter Schaffer’s meditation on a tragicomic reality in the business of art: The distribution of talent and genius is largely up to God. To all the other hardworking but unchosen stiffs, who are the vast majority of artists: If God smiles on a childish oaf instead of you, tough luck.

There’s another issue in movies about artists in particular. Fiction vs. reality is not the only problem. There’s a standing assumption, especially in America, that artists are kind of stupid and art is basically stupid. It’s not something that comes out of skill, experience, wisdom, and work; it just happens. Ed Harris’s Pollock, which I think is a splendid film and in many ways true to the life of artists, makes that assumption just as Amadeus does: Artists are incoherent damn fools, but this incredible stuff somehow comes out of them. It’s like Kobe Bryant shooting a three-pointer. It appears to happen from instinct and talent, and to a degree it does. Genius is founded on inborn gifts, but that’s only the beginning. What you don’t see is the thousands of hours of practice and coaching and experience that prepare Kobe’s split-second tic of instinct. The same kind of often split-second instinct was behind every note Mozart wrote, and every note he wrote in a piece was done with awareness of every note he’d written up to that one and a lot of the ones he hadn’t written yet.

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.

So are there in my jaded opinion any truly first-rate biopics about composers? From several possibilities, I nominate two. The first one concerns musicians most viewers have never heard of: Touts les Matins du Monde, about two 17th-century viola da gamba players and composers, the aptly-named Sainte Columbe and his lionized student Marin Marais. Among the saving graces here are Gerard Depardieu in the lead and a moving story. The power of music isn’t stinted. The opening sequence is a marvelous five-minute closeup of Depardieu’s face as he coaches students and kvetches and plays—or, rather, beautifully fakes playing—a melancholy air on the gamba while the music washes over his face. The movie is a debate between a worldly and an impossibly ideal vision of music. Both result in cruelties visited on loved ones. The real star of the film, occupying long stretches of the soundtrack, is the beautiful and mournful sound of the gamba. This is a biopic that shows music can carry a movie if the music is joined to subtle acting and atmospheric visuals (based on Baroque painter George de la Tour’s candlelit nocturnes).

My second nominee is a bit of a dodge in relation to my topic of movies on classical composers, because it’s about Gilbert and Sullivan: Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy. It’s not only about music but is one of the great films about the theater, up there with All About Eve. I’m only modestly into Gilbert and Sullivan, but I’ve seen the film six or seven times, and it gets better every time. I’m always amazed to find its version of “Three Little Maids from School” sending chills up my spine.

The story concerns the impending dissolution of the partnership and how from that near-collapse rose The Mikado, a Japanese yarn nobody could have anticipated. The movie follows the creation of the opera from its inspiration in a London fair on Japanese culture through the script, the rehearsals, the triumphant premiere. This is a film passionately but unsentimentally in love with the theater, every part of it: the creative process, the egos, the libretto, the music, the costumes, the money, the sex, the drugs, the craziness. It’s also in love with how Victorian Brits talked, that mellifluous sarabande danced around actual emotion. I emerged from the movie declaiming to my wife: “I am sure I shall reap the benefit of your remonstrations in the fullness of time.”

At the center of the story are depressive, withdrawn, sexless funnyman Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), and the lusty socialite Sullivan (Allan Corduner), who wants to get away from this frivolous stuff and compose a serious opera to inspire England. As always in a Mike Leigh film (he works for weeks in isolation, improvising with his cast, and puts his scripts together from the results) the actors, from bit parts to leads, inhabit their characters at a depth few directors have plumbed.

So once in a while biopics about artists succeed because they are grounded in some fashion in the reality of the creative life and the reality of art, and they are equally grounded on a compelling human story realized by directors, actors, writers, and cinematographers who know how to make a good movie. With the dull bits taken out. And the facts, to some necessary extent, be damned.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.

Correction, July 28, 2010: This article originally misspelled the last name of Roger Daltrey. (Return to the corrected sentence.)