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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.