While there aren’t many truly great productions of this ilk, a handful or so of the feature films about composers and performers of Classical music are must-see movies whose appeal can and should extend far beyond that particular genre’s already established and dedicated fan base.
‘Amadeus’ (1984)The finest, highest-grossing and most-awarded film of its kind, director Milos Foreman’s “Amadeus” was also the first movie about Classical music which found a wide, mainstream audience.
Rather than framing the title character (Tom Hulce) with lionized, ivory-tower reverence, Foreman and screenwriter Peter Shaffer (“Equus”) paint him as a spoiled wunderkind who got away with his often frat-boy behavior by composing what most consider to be the greatest works in the history of the genre.
This, of course, drove the envious, jealous, far-too-serious, and way-less-talented Antonio Salieri (Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham) up a proverbial wall.
It should come as no surprise that Mozart’s music (conducted by Neville Marriner) is the centerpiece of the production and is as diverse and wide-ranging as the 161-minute running time would allow.
‘Immortal Beloved’ (1994)For those who’ve reveled at his uncanny ability in playing non-fictional characters (Sid Vicious, Winston Churchill, Joe Orton, Lee Harvey Oswald, Herman J. Mankiewicz), the idea of watching Gary Oldman transform himself into Ludwig van Beethoven wouldn’t initially seem like much of an acting stretch (for him, at least).
The beauty of Oldman’s phenomenal performance here is in witnessing just how much his nuanced, understated, and close to the vest rendering slowly creeps up on the audience, eventually leaving us emotionally drained.
‘Pavarotti’ (2019)An initially unlikely candidate to make a movie about Luciano Pavarotti, director Ron Howard more than proved his previous winning documentary about the Beatles (“Eight Days a Week”) was no fluke.
Matching the brio and lust for life of its eponymous subject, “Pavarotti” was labeled by a few as being a rose-colored-glasses biography, which is patently incorrect. Howard’s film certainly touches on the tenor’s personal ebbs and foibles; the trouble is, he just didn’t have that many of them.
It would also be nice to say that the film introduced Pavarotti to a larger audience. This is technically true, but the man had been reinventing himself for the entirety of his career and his many collaborations with non-classical artists (Elton John, U2, Eric Clapton, Sting, Frank Sinatra) showed his willingness to stretch artistically and beyond the sometimes snobby, elitist boundaries and tastes of Classical purists.
‘Maria by Callas’ (2017)When one watches then reviews biographical documentaries which are narrated exclusively by the subject of the film, one must be leery, especially if said subject is still alive.
In two recent such movies about Rita Moreno and Clarence Thomas, the former was a glorified vanity project and the latter a reflective recounting from a man noted for his desire to say as a little (about everything) as possible.
A woman for whom the term “Diva” was practically invented, Callas addresses her on-and-near-off-stage reputation with the same type of frank openness she uses to describe her troubled upbringing, failed romances, and her many professional peaks and valleys.
‘Hilary and Jackie’ (1998)Emily Watson (as Jackie DuPre) and Rachel Griffiths (as her sister Hilary) both received Oscar nominations for their portrayals as non-fictional musicians whose professional and personal lives took radically different trajectories.
Cellist Jackie found almost instant success while Hilary’s career as a flautist eventually floundered, leading to an early retirement and her starting a family. The friction between the two heightened when one developed a roving eye for the other’s mate but was somewhat resuscitated down the road for the most tragic of reasons.
Director Anand Tucker and screenwriter Frank Cottrel Boyce received considerable blowback from several of Jackie’s professional acquaintances for their perceived “inaccurate” portrayal of her; however, a book released after the movie was made, written by Hilary and her brother Piers, contained essentially the same material.
Siblings tend to be more informed in such matters and neither came off as having axes to grind.
Once again, the music here is a de facto character in the movie, which features a haunting score by Barrington Pheloung, Elgar’s entire “Concert for Cello and Orchestra,” and with the remainder containing pieces closely associated with Jackie, performed by cello virtuoso Caroline Dale.