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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » In Search of Beethoven
In Search of Beethoven
Microcinema // Unrated // April 27, 2010
List Price: $40.00 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Casey Burchby | posted May 18, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Sometimes when handling the legacy of a genius like Beethoven, it's best to let the man speak for himself. Filmmaker Phil Grabsky implicitly understands the power of the subject's own words - and, in the case of Beethoven, his music, too. In Search of Beethoven is an incisive, inquisitive documentary that compiles wide-ranging source material to form an unusually propulsive narrative life of this most towering of cultural icons.

Grabsky culls insightful commentary from a few dozen interview subjects (including Emmanuel Ax, Hélène Grimaud, Riccardo Chailly, and Sir Roger Norrington) and combines it with narration by Juliet Stevenson and readings from Beethoven's letters. In addition, we are treated to excerpts from newly-shot live performances of Beethoven's major works. Telling Beethoven's tale chronologically while balancing biographical, musical, and analytical information, Grabsky takes an approach that is both immersive and expansive. We don't just get the highlights of an accomplished life here. In Search of Beethoven takes its title seriously, investigating its subject with rare tenacity.

There is a feeling of spacious breathability about Grabsky's film; we get to spend some real time in Beethoven's world, and in his head, too. Each interview subject is allowed time to fully explicate their insights or responses to Beethoven's music, rather than being reduced to context-free sound bites. The performance footage is used extensively, and excerpts are generous enough so that we have an opportunity to really listen to them. The readings from Beethoven's letters are selected carefully and they do much to shape the sense of narrative. This isn't a rushed, 45-minute episode of Biography. In Search of Beethoven is a leisurely 139 minutes, but none of this length is wasted. A cohesive editorial strategy, guided solely by the linear chronology of its subject's life, keeps things moving forward, and the pauses to listen to excerpts from Beethoven's work are like cool oases.

Although it certainly has enormous value on its own as a film, another benefit to be gained from In Search of Beethoven is a renewed interest in classical music. I, for one, was propelled to download a number of Beethoven recordings and request a print biography from the library. This isn't because the film doesn't do a good enough job of covering its subject - it's because it does such a good job making Beethoven come alive that you want even more when the film is over.

The DVD

The Video
The enhanced 1.78:1 image is solid. Shot on video, the image is crisp, if a bit overly so. Its sharpness is probably due to the nature of its source medium, and the flaws that do exist are not terribly distracting. In general, the images are warm, well-composed, and pleasing to the eye.

The Audio
Beethoven's music might have benefitted from a surround track, but the stereo track that is included succeeds admirably. It's an expansive, well-balanced track that showcases the music quite well, and keeps particpants' voices and narration clearly up front.

The Extras
A second disc contains a substantial suite of bonus content that complements the feature nicely. First, Interview With the Director (15:26) has Grabsky discussing the project in some detail. His manner is amiable and down-to-earth as he talks about how the film came to be. Next, a section called Complete Movements (47:18) presents the uncut versions of the music performances shot for the film. These are usually individual movements from longer works, but it's nice to have these excellent performances all in one place; they make for great listening. In the Edit Room (8:28) takes us inside the technicalities of assembling the feature, which took several months. Deleted Scenes (28:40) include further commentary and performances by the interview participants; generally, this material is just as worthwhile, if slightly less relevant from a storytelling point of view, as what made it into the final cut. Lastly, there are a few Trailers for other Seventh Art Productions releases.

Final Thoughts

In Search of Beethoven is a rigorously detailed and thoughtfully constructed documentary that peels back the layers of iconography surrounding one of the greatest composers of all time, and reveals him as a human being and a working artist. Highly recommended.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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