by Paul E. Robinson
|From left to right: Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener|
Cast: Philip Seymour
Hoffman/Christopher Walken/Catherine Keener/Mark Ivanir
Music: Beethoven: String
Quartet Op. 131
Cast: Bruce Willis/Bill
Murray/Ed Norton/Frances McDormand
Music: Britten: Noyes’
Flood/Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra/Songs for Friday Afternoons/A
Midsummer Night’s Dream (excerpts)
Films about classical
music composers and performers are nearly always risible in the extreme. Think Song Without End (1960) with Dirk
Bogarde as Liszt or Humoresque (1946)
with John Garfield as an unlikely virtuoso violinist; that said, there are
Milos Forman’s Amadeus (photo: right) practically re-invented the
Consider the films
that, while not “about” classical music, nevertheless use classical music as a
major component of the soundtrack: good examples would be Visconti’s Death in Venice with the “Adagietto”
from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony prominently featured in the soundtrack, or Stanley
Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) with a
soundtrack featuring huge chunks of music by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss,
Ligeti and others.
discerning directors choose to go “classical” for soundtracks of certain films,
but for classical music lovers familiar with the music selected, their choices may
appear both insulting to the composers (who…usually deceased… had no say in the
matter!), and annoying to the viewer, who will often find the soundtrack more
compelling than the story on the screen.
A Late Quartet is an intriguing new film about the
relationships between members of a string quartet. Moonrise Kingdom, a story of children gone missing on an island, draws
heavily on the music of Benjamin Britten. Both are excellent films and set new
standards for the handling of classical music in movies.
While Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet does not
claim to be a true story, it clearly draws on the experiences of some real life
quartets, including the Guarneri (whose long-time cellist created problems for
the remaining members of the group when he retired) and the famed Quartetto
Italiano (also comprised of three men and one woman).
It has often been
said that playing in a string quartet is like being married to three people; in
fact, quartet members often spend more time rehearsing and performing together than
they do with their spouses. While they ostensibly spend all that time together
studying great music and perfecting their performances, “life” will inevitably intrude
now and again.
In bygone days, the
first violinist often formed the quartet and functioned as its leader. It was
he who made the decisions about repertoire, phrasing, fingering and bowing and
the other players rarely objected. Quartets today are generally more “democratic,”
with all members having equal say in these matters.
The Emerson Quartet
is one of the most respected quartets before the public today. From the
beginning, its first and second violinists have alternated sitting in the first
chair. In The Last Quartet, a
credible conflict is set up when the second violinist (Philip Seymour Hoffman),
without citing the example of the Emerson Quartet, decides that he has played
in the shadows as second violinist for long enough, that his playing is every
bit as good as that of the first violinist (Mark Ivanir), and that he ought to
sit in the “Big Boy” chair at least half the time.
There are other
potential sources of conflict inherent in the “quartet” structure; this is
especially true if there is a woman involved. In The Last Quartet, the violist (Catherine Keener) is married to the
second violinist (Hoffman) but she has a history with the cellist (ChristopherWalken) and is secretly in love with the first violinist (Ivanir). Add to this
mix the fact that the first violinist is teaching the nubile young daughter of
Hoffman and Keener. Most of these issues lie dormant until the cellist is
diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and reluctantly concludes that he must
retire. The concept here is that, while personal issues can be managed when the
group is functioning normally and successfully, “functioning” for a quartet is an
always fragile balance, that when disturbed, becomes very difficult to sustain.
It is always
interesting to explore group dynamics in a film or television series, whether of
a baseball team (A League of Their Own,
Bull Durham), the White House (The
West Wing), a monarchy (Elizabeth),
a sales office (Glengarry Glen Ross) a
prisoner of war camp (Stalag 17, Bridge on the River Kwai), or a string quartet.
Director Zilberman (photo: above right) has succeeded in bringing his characters to life both as individuals and as
members of a fine string quartet.
One of Zilberman’
greatest hurdles in The Late Quartet
was surely to convince the audience that his fine actors are also stellar musicians.
That challenge could not be avoided; one can’t tell a story about a string
quartet without seeing it in action.
We are told that each
of the four lead actors worked intensively with coaches to learn how to hold
instruments and bows, and how to play brief excerpts, but as everyone knows, it
takes years and lots of talent to be able to play a violin, a viola or a cello.
A few coaching sessions a Heifetz or Yo-Yo Ma does not make.
In a film, it is
ultimately up to the director to make magic to establish credibility and to avoid
embarrassing his actors, and in the case of The
Late Quartet, I would say that while Zilberman is about 80% successful, he
is, unfortunately, least successful when it matters most.
In the final scene of
the film we see the quartet on stage playing Beethoven’s Op. 131, the cellist’s
final appearance as a member of the group. With quick cutting, Zilberman almost
pulls it off, but while we “hear” some excellent playing (from the Brentano
Quartet on the soundtrack), what we actually “see” is some pretty clumsy
Ultimately, The Late Quartet gives us little sense
of what makes a quartet musically great nor what makes Beethoven’s Op. 131
great music…but, while the music is essential to this film, the human
relationships depicted were the essence of it. This is a movie about
music-making…not a movie about music.
Throughout the film,
the quartet is working on Beethoven’s (photo: right) Op. 131, one of his so-called “Late
Quartets.” The choice of this music fits the story of the film but it really
has no closer connection than that; the quartet could have been working on any
piece by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, etc. and it wouldn’t have made much
difference. If movie buffs see the film and rush out to buy CDs or downloads of
Beethoven’s Op. 131, however, that would be wonderful!
Wes Anderson has been
making films for over 20 years now and I have liked them all, with the possible
exception of the early Bottle Rocket.
In films like Rushmore, The Royal Tanenbaums and The Life
Aquatic he gives us his own quirky view of life in the form of fairy tales.
The colors are pastels, the acting style understated and stilted, the stories
far-fetched yet somehow perceptive and insightful.
Anderson has done it
again with Moonrise Kingdom. He doesn’t
bother with back stories and his characters seem to make them up as they go
along; whether they are true or not doesn’t matter. Most of his characters are
misfits and liars but no more than your average fairy tale character. No wonder
Anderson recently made a very successful animated film intended for children
and families. Most of his other films threaten to cross over into the world of
cartoons and animation at any time. This is not to say that they are unreal,
although Anderson’s version of reality is more fantastic and childlike than
Whereas Anderson is
known to use classical music in his films – bars of Ravel’s String Quartet, for
example, in The Royal Tanenbaums - the sound track for Moonrise Kingdom is almost entirely comprised of music by Benjamin Britten.
The music used here was originally intended for performance by or for children,
and therefore perfectly suits a film featuring a boy and a girl as its lead
Britten’s (photo: right) music has
an air of innocence to it, and innocence is the essence of director Anderson’s vision
in Moonrise Kingdom. The Biblical
story of Noah and the Ark is in itself a tale of innocence and wonder involving
man and the natural world, and in Noyes’
Flood, Britten captured its essence.
Anderson also probes
man’s relationship to nature in Moonrise
Kingdom and the use of Britten’s music underlines the fact that we are
seeing this relationship from a child’s point of view. The use of bits from
Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream
also reinforces the fantasy elements in the film.
I have no idea
whether Britten (d. 1976) would have approved Wes Anderson’s use of his music, but
as an admirer of both artists, I found their collaboration immensely
Good films dealing
with classical music are rare, but they do exist.
Unfaithfully Yours (1948): This great (black) comedy about a
famous conductor driven mad by jealousy stars Rex Harrison and is directed by
the legendary Preston Sturges.
Meeting Venus (1991): Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s
satire about the trials of the conducting profession stars Glenn Close and
features lengthy selections of music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
Taking Sides (2004):
This film, also directed by Istvan Szabo, is based on a play about German
conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as he deals with uncomfortable questions from the
American military authorities after the war.
As It Is In Heaven (2004):
A touching Swedish film about a retired conductor who makes a comeback in a
This new film, starring Maggie Smith and directed by Dustin Hoffman, is set
in a home for retired musicians in England. I haven’t yet seen it, but advance
reports have been exceptionally
Labels: A Late Quartet, beethoven, Bnjamin Britten, classical music blog, Concert_Review, movies, Yaron Zilberman