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From Mao to Mozart, Isaac Stern in China
Docu Rama
1980 / Color / 1:37 flat / 115 minutes / Street Date February 27, 2001 / 24.95
Artistic Supervisor Allan Miller
Film Editor Tom Haneke
Produced and Directed by Murray Lerner

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This academy award-winning documentary is nothing less than superlative. In 1979, violinist Isaac Stern was invited to China on a cultural visit, a monthlong trip to Beijing and Shanghai. He performed, with a pianist who accompanied him, and observed the Chinese students playing both their own traditional instruments, and western ones. The film dedicates only a few minutes to travelogue-style views of the countryside. Some remarkable scenes are shown inside the Peking Opera Company, where performers dancing with swords and spears do some incredible things as impressive as anything in a martial-arts fiction film.

The soul and center of the documentary is the time spent watching Stern coach and inspire the Chinese students, some of whom seem little older than tots, yet play with intense professionalism. A consummate teacher, his task seems to be to inspire them to stop being simply technical masters and to put their heart and emotion into their playing. He asks one young violinist to sing, and she finds it difficult to do so - as if the expression of the personal ego was something not encouraged or valued in her culture. With a smile that would melt ice, Stern connects with every student he encounters. American movies are full of phoney stories about 'inspirational' music teachers - the magic of From Mao to Mozart is that you see the real thing happening before your very eyes. Savant knows very little about music, but the teachings of Stern that are presented here, especially his admonition that one must have an intense desire to express oneself musically to be a musician, made me understand more about the spirit of music than years of school 'music appreciation' classes.

From Mao to Mozart also tells some Chinese history, especially the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that seems to be responsible for some of the older students' self-repression. An aged violin master and maker talks about his denunciation and imprisonment during that period, simply because he favored foreign music.

Every year we see clips of Oscar-nominated documentaries designed to find favor with the liberal Academy. From Mao to Mozart transcends any such considerations. It's truly a fine show. It is obviously also an excellent, excellent teaching tool.

The From Mao to Mozart DVD is a quality product. The (16mm?) image is always bright and clear, making one wonder how they captured all those intimate musical moments without intruding on the drama. Included on the disc are two additional documentaries. The Gentlemen from Shanghai tells the full story of the man imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, from this birth in 1907 through the invasion by Japan all the way to the present, where he still plays and makes violins at age 92. Another video docu is Musical Encounters, which will delight those already familiar with From Mao to Mozart. It chronicles a return visit of Stern to China twenty years after his first trip ('89?), with more teaching session, concerts, and especially his reunion with some of the students from the original film, all shown to be professional musicians and teachers. A credits note: one of the cameramen on From Mao, Rik Knowland, photographed the musical Cats that Savant just reviewed; and director-producer Murray Lerner, if the IMDB is to believed, also produced Savant science fiction favorite Rocketship X-M way back in 1950.

The best moment in the show is not musical: astonished (as are we) by a quintet of dervishes in the Peking Opera Company doing amazing magic with swords and spears, Isaac Stern says, "But they can't play Mozart."

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two Additional docu films: Musical Encounters and The Gentlemen from Shanghai; Isaac Stern Biography
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 4, 2001

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