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.
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.