Cinema Signal:

Beethoven:
The Music and the Life
by Lewis Lockwood



Beethoven's Hair:
An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved
by Russell Martin

"Beethoven's hair, sheltered for nearly two centuries inside a glass locket, was about to become the subject of rapt attention on a warm December morning..."


. "Copying Beethoven"

As usual, there are two sides to this coin. On the one lies the difficulty of making a film biography of any person of merit, especially when it's a person long dead with little actual personal information on which to draw. These films are rarely good, rarely dramatic, and in the case of someone like the subject here, too full of narrative disguised in dramatic trickery. Alas, all of that's true in "Copying Beethoven."

On the other side is the excellent motivation behind exposing moviegoers to the greatness of historical heroes, especially musical ones. For doing their best to wrap it in as appealing a dress as an artifical concept can muster, I give the filmmakers of this supposed incident in the great maestro's life high praise. But that's for effort, mind.

The premise that director Agnieszka Holland ("Secret Garden") and writers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson ("Ali," "Nixon") managed to come up with is that Ludwig (long-haired, aged and bellicose Ed Harris), a socially troublesome genius in the process of re-writing the whole conception of classical music, was deeply in need of someone to transcribe his notation into a form that could be copied for the musicians who are to perform the premiere of his Ninth Symphony for a Vienna audience in 1824. This person is a copyist, normally, but there's nothing normal about this specific person.

Turning up in the bombastic, deaf composer's flat is 23-year old beauty Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger, "Troy," "National Treasure") a student chosen by her music conservatory as the most qualified despite the fact that she's a she. Beethoven is repulsed by the idea... for a few seconds. Then he scoffs at her harboring hopes of composing music. But to drive that possibility home as a viable notion, female director Holland shows her gender inclinations by having her young musical student change a passage in the Beethoven Ninth Symphony from major to minor to help Beethoven out. Yeah, right. Be that gender politics distortion as it may, the relationship (and the story line) is hatched.

About the Ninth Symphony... let me put it this way. There are a few things that every human being should directly experience within their lifetimes: The bottom of the ocean floor, the "Guitar Player" from Picasso's blue period, the gaseous formations of outer space as captured by the Hubble Telescope, and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

In any event, while there's some critical grumbling about the length of the edited premiere performance of the symphony, I assure you that it's entirely relevant to understand the central character's art and the depth of his soul. If you don't get a substantial impression of that, what's left? A dumb biopic. So, pat on the back to Holland for daring to use screen time to demonstrate what the bio subject is all about. What audacity! Plus, this scene gives us its most valuable contribution.

It's established early on that Beethoven insisted on conducting his new music despite his deafness. But, he was growing more and more incapable of keeping up with his own score and he would throw his musicians for a loop time and time again in rehearsals. But, in conducting the Ninth, he had his expert, sensitive, extremely capable copyist to keep him on track.

So, she does, and in the doing Holland justifies the concept of the film. It consists not merely in the fact of the relationship, but a human connection between two understanding musicians. Not to suggest the student is on the composer's level, nor was this a substitute for physical attraction, having nothing to do with her gender (except for her angelic good looks). Fictional as this moment may be in the composer's real life, it conveys to its movie audience something about the appreciation of genius. For this I applaud Kruger for her dire concentration and intellectual depth in a moment that expresses the power of this music to transport the soul.

Cinematographer Ashley Rowe's lighting is canvas-like, balancing deep tones and dark backgrounds with rich separation for the actors. Other tech credits are pro.

The film, however, isn't as majestic as the music but, then, no film is. For me, I'd rather have this exaggerated depiction and reminder of the man than no film about him at all. Would that it inspire study of the historical record about the composer, and increased exposure to the music record abundantly available in every store and played daily on every classical radio station. His late quartets are so full of musicality and invention they shouldn't even be considered as typical of a particular time, but as "ageless."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
                                           Cinema Signals 


The Soundtrack Album

Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9 in Full Score

The Complete Symphony No. 9
On DVD
Conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Immortal Beloved
On DVD
Beethoven's life and death, with Gary Oldman




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Diane Kruger and Ed Harris
Facing the master with her expertise.
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