This weekend, I succumbed to the pull of all the meme-y marketing and went to the theater to see the surprise horror-comedy hit M3gan. I generally enjoyed it—the jokes are funny, the jump scares effective, the robot-centric plot a rather smart addition to our fresh new wave of artificial intelligence anxiety. It isn’t the goriest or most frightening flick—the blood streams had to stay PG-13—but the steadily paced tension and the references to horror classics do their job fine. Yet, to me, the most chilling aspect of the movie doesn’t come from anything you might expect: the offscreen murders, M3gan’s deranged humanoid face, the pressures of capitalism. It actually stems from a deceptively insignificant 10-second scene that comes about halfway through the movie, in which the titular bot takes to the house piano. You might remember glimpsing it in the trailer:
To be clear, I don’t find this scene so viscerally terrifying for the piano tune itself (in the film, a solid instrumental cover of Martika’s 1989 No. 1 hit “Toy Soldiers”), or for the overall menace of the moment, a turning point in M3gan’s development. Instead, I’d like to back up and focus on something seemingly more innocuous: the hands.
If I’m looking at these (mostly normal) robot-killer-doll hands, it’s because I’m in awe of the fact that they have quite the sturdy hand position at the piano. As a former longtime piano student, this is something that always stands out to me during any live concert, visual recording, or key-stroking performance: the structure of the hand position. My fellow pianists may recall all the lessons about cupping your hand in a C to even out your finger lengths, keeping your knuckles bent and firm without tensing up your arms, keeping your elbows at the appropriate level, never allowing your joints to buckle when you hit a new note, taking care to position yourself so your hands are neither flat at the piano nor too elevated or curled up. It’s about simultaneous rigidity and dexterity, keeping your technique sharp while allowing yourself to play loose. It’s certainly not easy. My own teachers made me drill endless Czerny and Hanon exercises that were intended to teach good posture. So it’s not a lesson I ever forgot, and chances are that if you were ever any good at the 88s, you didn’t forget it either. Clearly, it’s also one of the many lessons that’s been internalized by M3gan’s A.I.
You might be thinking: So what? But what M3gan is doing there is far from common within the cinematic piano canon. In fact, in far too many movies—some of which, unlike M3gan, actually center on actors playing the piano—the human piano players have awful, just awful hand position. As a viewer whose piano regimen has slacked in recent years but who still instinctively curves up his hand before punching a different set of keys (on my laptop), it makes me lose my mind. Yes, I realize a lot of actors aren’t trained, capable musicians. No, I’m not saying anything about the scene from Big. Yes, I read that trade-publication profile that delves into how a cast member was given crash-course lessons in piano-playing in search of awards recognition. No, I don’t think Bill Murray did a good job in Groundhog Day—that Rachmaninoff sounds so clunky.
The thing is: Good hand position is essential for even basic piano playing, forget Van Cliburn’s level. Firm, curved, even, yet flexible fingers are what get the best sounds possible out of any piano note or melody. Yet if my movie viewing is any indication, a killer robot doll shows off way better technique in a few seconds than a lot of human characters do for entire movies’ runtimes.
Don’t believe me? I’ve been compiling an evidence folder. First, let’s look at another recent, beloved film: Call Me by Your Name, starring the otherwise talented Timothée Chalamet.
That’s really poor form, my guy. Those flat fingers! The constant bouncing of the hands and arms, an unnecessary and unhelpful waste of physical energy! Those flexing muscles, showing off how tense they are! I find it hard to believe that a fictional character who ostensibly devotes so much time to his piano is this sloppy with his fingerwork, but hey, I’m not an Oscar-nominated actor.
Let’s move on to another Oscar-nominated performance in another Best Picture nominee: Ryan Gosling in La La Land. His technique here isn’t the worst, exactly. I tend to grant jazz pianists more leeway—consider Art Tatum, the early-20th-century legend who, though visually impaired and mostly self-taught, could swing the fastest, clearest, most incredible trills and tremolos sans “proper” technique. Ryan Gosling, however, is no Art Tatum. You can tell how rigid his hands are, how forced his cross-key jumps, how clumsy his in-the-moment prep for landing on chords. I mean, not to denigrate the talented Mr. Gosling, who does play some impressive pieces in the film (as he learned on the job), but his amateurism is on brutal display. He’s not the only offending jazz guy in recent cinema—the way the piano-playing on Pixar’s Soul was animated is also not great. But that’s just the latest in a long history of sloppy piano depictions in animated flicks.
One more from the Academy files: the controversial Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Rami Malek’s transformation into the late Queen frontman was undeniably impressive, but it didn’t translate down to hand position. Now, I also tend to grant rock pianists a lot of leeway; it’s hard to believe Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Mercury himself would’ve had the impact they did if they’d been bound by classical craft. Still, this is what wins you Best Actor? All props due for getting the training to perform those immortal Mercury riffs all on your own, but man, you really don’t have to force your hands to the back of the keys like this. It’s not efficient or fast! The whole thing could’ve been way easier had you modified your chord-hammering style just a touch.
Lest you’re led to believe this is a recent trend, let me direct you to no less a film than Casablanca. I hate to do the great singer Dooley Wilson like this: He was not a pianist himself, and the keys you hear in the film are dubbed. But come on. He could have made a touch more effort in the scenes where his playing hands are visible, instead of flopping his hands up and down on the upright. I’m not sure I disagree with the YouTube commenter who deems this “the worst fingering in movie history.”
I could go on and on. The disrespect paid to none other than Scott Joplin in his own 1977 biopic; the inconsistency in positions in the movie that dares to call itself The Piano. And sure, I’ll shout out some cinematic piano moments with superb technique, from appropriately themed films like Amadeus, Shine, The Pianist, and La Leggenda del Pianista Sull’oceano. It’s not impossible to make happen! But this has been a pox on English-language movies for too long, and with the January release of M3gan, we’re starting off 2023 with a bunch of well-regarded actors getting outplayed by an android. How do we expect to keep A.I. out of the music industry if we can’t even pretend to outplay it? I have a lot of worries about how the already battered creative class will suffer from A.I.-fueled conveniences. I have less sympathy for the actors who can’t even be bothered to internalize elementary piano teachings. Shape up those hands, humanity, lest the M3gans of the world come for you.