Biographies about creative people can be a tough thing. How do you do service to both their art and their personal life without letting one dominate the other? And if it's a movie, how do you do all of that in under two hours? Many fictionalized biopics have tried and failed, relying on forced connections and reoccurrence of happenstance to suggest that life follows a singular thread. Documentaries can have a better time of it, because they can distill the information required without being forced to dramatize it. It takes less time to say "So-and-so lost his father at an early age and never got over it" than it does to "show" it. The danger there is assuming your audience already has some foreknowledge of the subject and so not telling them everything and thus leaving them confused (or vice versa, assuming they know nothing and overdoing it, thus making them bored).
Filmmakers in both disciplines could learn a lot from watching Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, the biographical portrait of the influential pianist directed by Michèle Hozer (who also edited the movie) and Peter Raymont. They strike the perfect balance between all things: they give enough information that a neophyte will feel informed but they don't overexplain and risk putting enthusiasts to sleep, all the while letting Gould's story unfold at its natural pace, set to the rhythm and following the creative thread of his music. For a movie about a classical musician, you can't ask for much more than that.
Genius Within begins with Gould's inaugural trip to New York in 1955, when the 22-year-old Canadian wowed audiences and scored a recording contract. Gould was a surprising force of nature on the piano, reinterpreting familiar material in ways that were fresh and personal but that maintained the integral elements fans yearned for. He was a personality perfectly realized for the new media age. His habit of wearing knitted gloves when not playing and to singing along with the tunes when he was were both elements seized upon by journalists and critics, and Gould wasn't afraid to go along. The photographs and the interview and performance footage from his early career is astonishing. This eclectic rebel was as publicity savvy as any rock 'n' roller, and he had the dark good looks and wild hair to match.
Hozer and Raymont briefly back up before carrying forward again. Gould's early life was important in so much that it fostered his early passion for the piano, and by encouraging and even isolating his precociousness, his parents probably set the stage for his career successes and perhaps some of his personal quirks. From there, Gould's story wrote itself--the concerts in Russia, the professional friendships with Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss (a fellow pianist whose wife, Cornelia, Gould had a long and open affair with), and his eventual leaving live performance for the solitude and perfection of the recording studio. The period that follows is perhaps even more interesting than his rise to fame, and it's almost too bad that Hozer and Raymont don't have much time to indulge in what was going on in the rest of the world. Outside of Gould's brief fascination with pop singer Petula Clark, little time is given to the rest of the music business. I doubt I'm the first to notice that Gould's retreat from the concert stage mirrored that of the Beatles, and both subsequently revolutionized how records were made in their respective fields.
There is an interesting tunnel-like structure to Gould's life, and it's one that Genius Within explores carefully. As he got older, Gould pulled further and further back and took greater control of everything. The spontaneous young man who seemed so at ease in the spotlight was now orchestrating every move he made, and it no longer seemed as genuine. Likewise, his paranoia and hypochondria were becoming more dominant. Yet, Hozer and Raymont are as careful to question the mythology around this period as they were with the affectations of his early life. Genius Within has an honest glow about it, and it makes the movie all the more satisfying knowing that the filmmakers have no interest in exaggerating the myth or tearing it apart. They just want the truth about the man, however that comes out.
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is constructed via a seemingly endless supply of archival material. A liberal use of photos, home movies, and promotional films show us Gould as he was, in his many forms, and new interviews with friends and collaborators, including Cornelia Foss and her children, as well as lifelong allies of the musician, give added perspective. Their voices aren't authoritative so much as their shared stories give us an understanding of the effect that Gould had on those around him. There are plenty of interviews that Hozer and Raymont mine so that the man can speak for himself, but it's the impressions he left on others that really illuminate what an impact he had.
And, of course, there is the music. Genius Within is driven and enhanced by a steady stream of Glenn Gould recordings. Different pieces are matched to the right time period, and the directors even bring in experts to explain what made, for instance, Gould's version of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" so different than the countless interpretations of other players. I've said before that the best thing a movie about music can do is make the audience want to keep listening even after the credits roll. Once I was done with Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, I flipped over to Pandora to check out their Glenn Gould channel. Needless to say, it's going to stay in my queue, as I'll no doubt visit it for further listening in the future: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould has made me a fan.
The high-definition 1.85:1 image transfer on Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould looks sensational. Footage new and old has a remarkable clarity, and it's clear that the archival material was handled with the best of care. Often you see old clips and they are beat up, pixilated, or full of ghosts and combing--not so here (though some old photos don't make a smooth transition into the digital age, if we're nitpicking). This is a great looking documentary, well lit and expertly rendered for home viewing.
Kino Lorber bills this edition of Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould as the "Director's Cut," but I have no real information on what is different. The theatrical cut is not included, and from what I can tell from information available, this new version is less than five minutes longer.
The main soundtrack is mixed in 5.1 DTS Master Audio, and it gives a wonderful showcase to Gould's music without overdoing it or pushing hard through the speakers. Even vintage recordings sound clear and distinct, and proper balance is given when the music shares the soundscape with interview subjects. There are even occasional light, inter-speaker effects, with material shot in the real world using live sound being treated as it would be in any regular film, the ambient noise positioned where it can have the most effect.
The BD comes in a standard case with an outer slipcover. The same information is printed on the outside cover as on the inside cover.
Seven deleted scenes, which total about sixteen minutes altogether, give added interview footage and tend to focus on specific subjects, like Gould's personal notes or his raggedy chair that he took everywhere.
A trailer for the film is included, as well as for a few other Lorber releases.
Highly Recommended. I'm not a classical music aficionado by any means, so the fact that Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould appealed to me anyway is the best indicator that it is a good documentary. A film of this quality on any subject can pull the viewer in and make him or her a part of the experience. I was utterly fascinated by the story of pianist Glenn Gould, and Genius Within left me feeling I could appreciate both the man and his music. I imagine those familiar with his work will only find that the film enhances your appreciation. Definitely worth your time.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.