With Tár screening at Plymouth Arts Cinema this week, Helen Tope takes a deep dive into classical music in cinema.
Dramatic swathes of score, larger-than-life personalities – it’s little wonder that cinema has repeatedly turned to classical music for inspiration. While it is hard to imagine Brief Encounter without the romantic swell of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, or A Clockwork Orange without the incongruous insertion of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, where it gets really interesting is when film decides to examine the creators and interpreters of the classical world.
Getting into the mechanics of classical music is tricky, but by leaning into biography, we have a way in. Historically, Hollywood favours the romanticised biopic; while independent film-makers have opted for a stripped-back approach. There are plenty of examples from both camps: a medium that demands virtuosity makes for great cinema. With the drama already built in, what is left to the film-maker is to tell the story.
The Romanticised Biopic: Amadeus (1984); Immortal Beloved (1994)
Taking on the heavy hitters, Amadeus and Immortal Beloved illustrate pressure points within the lives of composers Mozart and Beethoven. Peter Shaffer’s sell-out play, Amadeus, detailing the meteoric rise (and fall) of Mozart, translated into a big-screen, Oscar-grabbing win. The film famously takes some licence with Mozart’s character: Tom Hulce’s giggling, juvenile persona – seemingly crafting concertos for the Gods while going heavy on the fart gags – is at odds with the real Mozart who worked long and hard; his talent giving the impression of effortlessness. The story is framed through the narration of Mozart’s contemporary, Antonio Salieri (a career-best performance from F. Murray Abraham). Salieri’s feverish jealousy steers him to obsession and madness. While Milos Forman’s film lovingly recreates an opulent, 18th century Vienna, Amadeus’ link with biographical accuracy is tenuous to say the least. The depiction of Salieri as an embittered rival is enjoyable to watch, but Salieri was not a mediocrity, and the film’s popularity even saw a revival of interest in his music. Where the film lets the music take over, it becomes poetry, showing us the extent of Mozart’s range. His distinctly unromantic death; a streptococcal infection at the age of 35, clouds the third act, and it is this unsettling chain of events that gives the film much needed edge.
Also going full-throttle, Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved sees Gary Oldman transform into the composer dubbed the natural heir to Bach and Handel. Every emotion is turned up to 11; Oldman emphasises Beethoven’s mood swings and volatility. But where Amadeus leaned into the composer’s working life; Immortal Beloved looks at Beethoven’s relationship with women (definitely plural). We start at the end: after Beethoven’s death, a letter is uncovered, addressed to his “Immortal Beloved”. No name, no clue as to their identity. The film becomes a search for possible candidates, including a positively smouldering Isabella Rossellini. With flashbacks to Beethoven’s disordered life, the film comes together as the music plays: Rose had fresh recordings made, including solos from cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The attention to detail on sound also includes Rose’s insights into what Beethoven would have heard, as his hearing began to decline.
While every biopic needs an angle, the choice to focus on the mystery of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter may have been too limiting. Beethoven’s desperate attempts at disguising his hearing loss; the fruitless search for an ‘heir’ to carry on his musical legacy – these are side-notes in a story where they should have taken centre stage. While the music thunders, that unapologetic wall of sound, Beethoven was not equipped to deal with the level of fame that found him. Immortal Beloved gives us Beethoven in broad strokes, where his story clearly demands a more nuanced touch.
While both films succeed in celebrating the composers’ music – they comb through to find a blend that represents them accurately – the turning away from biographical detail doesn’t serve either subject particularly well. Beethoven’s tenacity despite his encroaching deafness; Mozart’s effervescence hiding a dedicated and hard-working composer – we don’t see much of that reality in either film. Far from illuminating these men, and bringing them closer to us, they remain locked in history.
The Revisionist Biopic: Shine (1996); Tár (2022)
Just two years after Immortal Beloved, we have a perfect example of the modern, revisionist biopic. Scott Hicks’ Shine, introducing us to pianist David Helfgott, has the advantage of speaking to us from our own time: the Australian virtuoso’s struggle with mental health makes the film feel surprisingly contemporary,
We then come up to date with Todd Field’s epic, Tár. Telling the story of a fictional conductor at the top of her game, Cate Blanchett plays Lydia Tár. She, like David, is faced with a career-defining challenge. Helfgott finds himself unable to master the huge emotions unleashed by the formidable Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3; Tár is tasked with a live recording of Mahler’s Symphony No.5. The pressure, to not only replicate but supersede what has gone before, is immense. Helfgott experiences a breakdown. As Tár becomes involved in a #MeToo scandal, the limits of ambition and power become blurred.
In these films, there is more of an eagerness to delve into the psychological landscape surrounding the central characters. Whereas Mozart’s father in Amadeus is a cardboard cut-out bully, in Shine we are given some explanation for why David’s father, Peter (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl), behaves in a similarly draconian way towards his son. He is a Holocaust survivor, and having lost most of his family, his iron grip on David becomes easier to understand. Peter’s terror of separation; the breaking apart of the family unit, even hinders David from accepting an invitation to study at the Royal College of Music in London. David eventually finds his way there, and we are treated to a deliciously dry cameo from John Gielgud as Helfgott’s tutor.
While the creation of Lydia Tár is Blanchett’s own, the edited version of David Helfgott’s life is true enough. Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-winning performance as Helfgott is skilfully balanced. Helfgott’s unravelling mind turns inward; he is a wanderer, almost entirely forgotten by the classical music community. It is with the help of friends, and love, that Helfgott manages to piece his life back together. The coda, of course, leads with triumph. Not only does Helfgott play on the film’s soundtrack, but a sell-out concert run at Sydney Opera House has led to years of touring. The tour de force? A tamed Rachmaninov’s Third.
As Cate Blanchett is predicted to win her third Oscar at this year’s ceremony, Tár positions itself squarely within the 21st century environment. In this biopic-in-disguise, we learn that Lydia has worked her way up to become the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. All eyes are on her. Today’s classical music industry is shown to be not only a well-oiled machine, but an industry that must remain relevant in order to survive. Blanchett has obviously done her research, and there’s more than a hint of Marin Alsop’s bravura in Lydia Tár. But the intensity of working in classical music – an endless carousel of practise and performance – is not that far removed from the exhaustive touring schedule that Mozart undertook as a child. With the mounting pressure on Tár to deliver the Mahler, Todd Field’s nightmarish exploration of performance in extremis comes full circle.
In trying to separate the romantic biopic from the revisionist, it’s clear that both strategies play a purpose. Amadeus is an immersive experience: for nearly three hours, we are witness to Mozart’s mercurial genius. In its most modern form, the invented biopic Tár is a forensic examination of contemporary classical music, its machinery exposed. Both bear testament to the classical world’s fight for survival. For Mozart, it was challenging audiences to hear new music; Lydia Tár’s challenge is to keep audiences attuned to sounds from the past.
When heard on its own terms, with no distractions, the resilience and fragility of classical music is inescapable. The need to appeal to a younger generation, while retaining historical and cultural roots, means the future of classical music is uncertain, but the boost in sales of Mahler after Tár’s release is encouraging. Music lovers are not being put off by complexity: they are embracing it.
This trend is crossing over into our viewing habits as well. While the proliferation of binge watching and on-demand allows audiences to get a quick hit of satiety anywhere, lasting nourishment is harder to come by. The interest in films like Tár indicates there is an appetite for both. As cinema and classical music continue to adjust to a post-pandemic world, the question should not be how we tell these stories, but how we ensure these stories continue to be told.
Written by Helen Tope