I have a lot of pet peeves about the way music, or really any of the arts, is portrayed in films. I hate the silliness of the ecstatic composer (poet, painter, etc.) writing down his inspired work in a euphoric frenzy. No years of hard labor for them! Or the actors "playing" instruments so inexpertly that kindergarteners could give them a run for their money. There are many other similar annoyances that ruin otherwise decent films for people who know music. I've already shared some great novels about music; here are 10 great films about classical music and musicians that musicians themselves can enjoy.
Amadeus is a great film, historical inaccuracies notwithstanding, replete with some of the best performances and recordings of classical music ever put in a movie. Legend has long held that Antonio Salieri was mortally jealous of Mozart's prodigious talent and that it was Salieri who anonymously commissioned the glorious and tragically unfinished Requiem - historical evidence contradicts this, but it's nevertheless a great story. Tom Hulce's polarizing performance as Mozart is a work of genius or a travesty depending on one's point of view, while F. Murray Abraham as Salieri plays him as a man capable of villainy and yet deeply empathetic and appreciative of true artistry. The costumes by Theodor Pistek are sumptuous and beautifully reflect character and social class, from Mozart's fluffy pink wig to Salieri's unadorned and darkly colored frock coats.
Death in Venice (1971)
This adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella directed by Luchino Visconti stars Dirk Bogarde as Gustave von Aschenbach, a composer (in the original novella he is a writer) who becomes obsessed with a stunningly beautiful Polish boy while staying in Venice for his health. Aschenbach watches the child from afar, unable to fully understand his feelings, but unable to tear himself away, even as disease descends on the city. In Visconti's film, Aschenbach is Mahler's alter-ego, with his third and fifth symphonies playing the part of the fictional character's music. A meditation on human mortality and the dubious immortality of art, beauty, whether corporeal or artistic, and the tenuity of temporal bonds.
Disney's masterpiece was not a success when it was first released - it was too avant-garde and too culturally sophisticated for popular audiences, hard as that is to believe now that it's considered a kids' classic. The idea of pairing classical music with animation, particularly abstract animation, was daring and new. From the stunning abstract sequence set to Bach's Toccata and Fugue to the comic ballet of animals set to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, from Mickey's enchanting fantasy set to Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice to the powerful and frightening Chernobog surrounded by ghouls set to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, every section in this film is dazzlingly ambitious. Leopold Stokowski conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in one of the greatest masterpieces of avant-garde filmmaking.
Directed by Jan Sverak and written by and starring Zdenak Sverak, Kolya, set just before the Velvet Revolution, is about Frantisek, a confirmed bachelor and cellist, who has lost his position with the Czech Philharmonic because he is deemed politically subversive. A sham marriage with a Russian woman ends up landing him with the care of her 5-year-old son, Kolya, who speaks no Czech. Frantisek slowly and sometimes ineffectively faces the challenges of being a father, worrying over the boy when he's sick, giving him violin lessons, and eventually fighting for the right to be the boy's permanent guardian. Kolya is an eloquent and heartbreaking film.
The Pianist (2002)
Roman Polanski's film stars Adrien Brody, in a truly amazing performance, as Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist and Holocaust survivor whose memoirs are the basis for the film, though many of Polanski's own memories as a Holocaust survivor were also included. The film's accurate depiction of the Warsaw ghetto and the atrocities committed there makes for brutal viewing, but the film ultimately finds small sources of hope amid overwhelming despair. Szpilman's identity as a musician permits him to hold on to his sanity, even as his family, home, and career are taken away from him and destroyed. Though not for the faint of heart, The Pianist is an exceptional film.
The Piano (1993)
Jane Campion's critically acclaimed film stars Holly Hunter as a mute woman sent to New Zealand to live with a husband she has married by proxy without having met him. She brings with her her illegitimate daughter (a superb performance by 9-year-old Anna Paquin) and her piano, the instrument that has acted as her sole means of expression since she ceased speaking. Campion's original screenplay tells an absolutely original story about female agency and expression within repressive social constructs, frustrated sexual desire, and the miniscule events that can suddenly escalate into violence. Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill contribute excellent performances.
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
The first of renowned Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy, this film is a reflection on emotional liberty and the bonds that connect human beings to each other. Juliette Binoche stars as a woman, devastated by the violent loss of her child and her husband, a prominent composer, in a car crash, who tries to cut herself off from all human interaction as a way of coping with her grief. Questions soon arise as to the actual composer of the works credited to her husband and she becomes entangled in the decision to complete a final work, a piece on the Unity of Europe. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak and the score by Zbigniew Preisner, as well as Binoche's harrowing performance, enrich this complex and ultimately sublime film.
Tosca's Kiss (1985)
Daniel Schmid's documentary film brings us into the lives of the retired opera singers that live in the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a nursing home founded by Verdi in 1896 and a refuge for musicians that have devoted their lives to their art. The retirees reminisce about their professional lives, singing their favorite arias and scenes, trying on their old costumes, pulling out old photographs and phonograph records. A moving portrait of both the sacrifices and the rewards of an operatic career, Tosca's Kiss is an essential film for classical musicians.
Margarethe von Trotta's biopic of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine nun and one of the most prominent mystics of her day, is a meditative rendition of the extraordinary life of a woman who, in her fight for religious reform and greater spiritual rights for nuns, could be considered one of the earliest feminists. Hildegard was also a scholar, philosopher, natural scientist, poet, and composer and the film uses her gorgeous music to excellent effect. Barbara Sukowa's performance is powerfully understated and the recreation of medieval convent life is evocatively rendered.
The World of Henry Orient (1964)
Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth give wonderful first-time performances as two teenage girls obsessed with a has-been womanizing concert pianist, played in a delightfully sleazy performance by Peter Sellers. Screenwriter and novelist Nora Johnson based her story on her own childhood obsession with Oscar Levant, who musical fans will know from An American in Paris and The Band Wagon. A particular highlight is the concert scene, in which Peter Sellers plays a parody of modern music - one of the most musically literate comedic scenes ever in a Hollywood film.