Classical music is only one of the many subjects that have found their way into the movies throughout the years. Unsurprisingly, many of the world’s greatest composers have proven to be popular with filmmakers. This is understandable considering the wide spectrum of eccentricities and talents seen in the pages of any composer A-Z.
While it’s always a challenge to portray them accurately, especially when they’re in the middle of making music, just as no amount of training can turn an actor into a major-league sports star, likewise music-loving filmgoers have grown accustomed to watching wooden, arrhythmic conductors or, less forgivably, hands moving in one direction on a piano… while the notes we hear clearly move in the other direction
In spite of this, the majority of ‘composer films’ are entertaining, and in some cases even excellent. In this list, we’ve selected ten of the most well-known and assigned them a score from 1 to 5.
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Amadeus (1984)
Start with the most well-known composer biography — not the first, but certainly one of the most glitzy and provocative. F Murray Abraham’s Salieri (F Murray Abraham) is a broken man, both physically and mentally.
During a confession to a priest, he admits to harboring a grudge against Mozart because of his own role in the composer’s deterioration and eventual death at the young age of 32. He also confesses that despite his devotion to God and music, he will never match the genius of the giggling and irritable Mozart (Tom Hulce).
But despite all the silliness Peter Shaffer reveals through the mouth of Salieri genuine insights into Mozart’s music as he unfolds the glory of such works like Wind Serenade: “On the page there was just a pulse,” like an old-fashioned squeeze box; then suddenly, high above it, an oboe—a single note hanging there, unwavering, until a clarinet took it over, sweetening into a phrase of such delight and filled with so unfulfillable longing, it seemed it was a phrase of such delight and filled with such unfulfillable longing,’ he writes.
2. Igor Stravinsky: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky (2010)
The creative mind behind the film’s title, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, deserves a round of applause. What a great idea. The story revolves around a designer who invites a composer and his family to reside in her home outside of Paris in the 1920s, sparking a friendship that eventually led to the exchange of several bodily parts.
Igor Stravinsky and Coco Chanel were rumored to have had an affair.
Jan Kounen’s cinematography is superb throughout the film, which begins with a vivid recreation of the chaotic Rite of Spring premiere. However, any director who cannot make a visually arresting film about Chanel should not be in the business. In contrast, the character of Stravinsky, played by Mads Mikkelsen, is a real thorn.
Contrary to popular belief, this photograph of the Russian composer shows him to be a towering, strong man with a dismal, dismal lack of wit, as depicted in images and written descriptions.
Chanel, however, is immune to his enchantment. Despite the fact that the discussion was in French and Russian, gags like “going to bed with a hot Coco” were not possible.
3. Ludwig van Beethoven: Immortal Beloved (1994)
It is 1827. Beethoven is no longer with us. Let’s forget about the music and get right to the point: Who was the mystery, unknown woman with whom he was infatuated? To find the “Immortal Beloved,” Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s first biographer and secretary, assumes the role of detective and goes in search of his friend’s former lovers.
Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Beethoven, from a young romantic to an older, deafened composer, is credible, yet curiously unremarkable. In addition, Bernard Rose’s film is unpleasantly bland and factually incorrect, despite the fact that this is a generously given story.
For the sake of the plot, Beethoven left all of his money to his ‘Immortal Beloved’, although the final reveal may be unconvincing. Although there is nothing wrong with the idea of an eye-opening “what if” theory and some dramatization, this film could have been elevated if a few more persuasive indications had been provided.
4. Frederick Delius: Song of Summer (1968)
The phrase “Ken Russell composer biography” conjures visions of Glenda Jackson rolling naked about the train or Roger Daltrey hitting the keys against a colorful backdrop?
If this is the case, then the British director’s portrayal of Eric Fenby’s introduction to the slightly dotty Delius household in France and his five years of assistance to the aging composer may come as a disappointment (or relief, of course). This may be due to the fact that Fenby himself had a hand in writing the script.
Max Adrian excels as the helpless and unfeeling Delius, while Christopher Gable’s portrayal of the naive Fenby is marred only by an accent that no self-respecting Yorkshireman would put up with in their own house.
Percy Grainger, as played by David Collings, tells Fenby that living with Delius will mean that he will never listen to another piece of the composer’s work again. When you hear Song of Summer, on the other hand, you’ll be left wanting more.
5. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: The Music Lovers (1970)
Tchaikovsky (a lynx-eyed, fuzzy-bearded Richard Chamberlain) and his (fictitious) boyfriend Count Chiluvsky ride an ice slide, drink, and have a good time before collapsing in Tchaikovsky’s bed, deshabillé.
‘Sasha’ (Alexandra Tchaikovsky, with restrained and far from sisterly passion) and Nina (Glenda Jackson), the woman to whom Tchaikovsky tragically marries, adoringly regard Chamberlain while he performs his Piano Concerto No. 1.
Tchaikovsky’s marriage to Antonina Milyukova was tragically short-lived.
Director of Moscow Conservatoire Nicholas Rubinstein (Max Adrian, appearing like the child-catcher from the movie Cutty Sark) then makes light of Tchaikovsky’s music, even with members of the audience present… From that point on, it’s all downhill.
Glenda Jackson’s over-the-top antics make us forget about the unexpected harm Tchaikovsky inflicted on Nina by marrying her. Tchaikovsky’s ‘rivals’ Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin are both tempted by Nina, who has been dumped by him, in the nude train carriage scene. There is no need to be alarmed.
6. Franz Liszt: Lisztomania (1975)
Lisztomania is a great way to show how far Ken Russell’s career as a composer biopic director progressed. Rock opera Tommy (1975) saw The Who’s Roger Daltrey take on the role of composer Franz Liszt — a move that Russell intended to make a comparison between the awed 19th-century women Liszt elicited and the youthful “mania” generated by rock stars.
how liszt invented the concept of a piano recital
At least largely based on Marie d’Agoult’s fictional memoir about her love affair with Franz Liszt, Russell’s Liszt has the air of a mid-’70s rock star, complete with T-shirted roadies and groupies. However, this is where any genuine comparison comes to a halt..
Russell’s obsessions with Nazis, Catholics, flamboyant costumes, and other filthy accessories overshadow the rest of the enterprise to a point of suffocation. However, the film isn’t without of strange humor, such as the opening metronome-topless-banana-eating-swordfight scene, when Liszt fights Count d’Agoult; or the Norse deity who revives Richard Wagner as a Hitleresque Frankenstein’s Monster.
7. Fryderyck Chopin: Impromptu (1991)
In a lighthearted romantic comedy, Hugh Grant plays the lovable bad boy. Does this sound familiar to you? It’s true, even if he’s portraying one of the greatest 19th-century composers, there’s a flavor of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral about it. However, that’s about it in terms of resemblances.
Chopin isn’t your typical Hollywood hero: he’s a polished, stoic, and physically frail genius. George Sand (Judy Davis), a legendary novelist known for her many boyfriends and predilection for dressing as a male, is enthralled by his musical charms.
In Majorca, George Sand and Chopin were in love: a focus on their relationship
She’s determined to seduce Chopin and follows him to a French country house party, which becomes the central plot point of the film. Duchess D’Antan (Emma Thompson) is the party host who dreams of a bohemian artistic life, and she’s given an effervescent performance by Thompson.
While Grant and Davis do a fine job portraying a love-struck artistic couple in Paris, the film lulls a bit without Thompson, despite the fact that Grant’s dubious Polish accent should have been slammed firmly under the piano lid.
Historical accuracy isn’t necessarily the objective here, but there are enough professions of love, betrayals and pistol duels to keep the historical drama entertaining….
8. Giacomo Puccini: Puccini (1984)
This early-morning scene has a voice-over from Puccini (Robert Stephens) complaining about how his opera La Bohème and Madam Butterfly have been slammed by reviewers.
What transpired at the Madam Butterfly premiere?
There’s no obvious connection between this and what happens next; instead, we’re treated to a well-observed depiction of Puccini’s wife Elvira’s emotional breakdown as she, aware of her husband’s philandering, wrongly accuses him of having an affair with their maidservant, leading to disastrous consequences.
Throughout the film, we hear excerpts from a documentary about Tony Palmer, who directed Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, and who makes the case that the opera was inspired by this tragic episode in the composer’s life. It’s a shame that Palmer felt the need to hammer home this point by having Puccini and the villagers speak lines from the opera during a key funeral scene.
We finally understand what Puccini was trying to say in his voice-over about reviewers when Palmer exhibits the damning evaluations of his own Turandot…
‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s opera Turandot has what lyrics?
9. Marin Marais: Tous les matins du monde (1991)
Unless you’ve heard of Marin Marais, he’s not a household name. At least not enough information exists about his early life to make a historically accurate movie. Nevertheless, perhaps this is what makes Alain Corneau’s film on the French Baroque composer and violist, a legend in his time, so exceptional.
Tous les matins du monde portrays the narrative of Marais’s troubled connection with his instructor, Sainte-Colombe, as imagined by novelist Pascal Quignard in a stunningly beautiful film. Supposedly, Sainte-Colombe (Jean-Pierre Marielle) could make the viol sound like a young girl’s sigh to an elderly man’s cries, according to folklore.
However, Marais lacked an understanding of music’s deeper meanings despite his impressive technical abilities. When Marais (Gérard Depardieu as an older man and his late son Guillaume Depardieu as a young man) falls in love with the daughter of his teacher, a long-term conflict between the two begins. The main flaw is the actors’ unrealistic musical miming, but if you want a film about a composer that will intrigue, entertain, and move you, this is the one. The soundtrack is played by violist Jordi Savall.
10. Richard Wagner: Wagner (1983)
TV executives are likely to be perplexed by the idea of a series about Richard Wagner that is nearly as long as his Ring Cycle.
However, this nine-hour epic was certainly welcomed in the ‘good old days,’ if its stellar cast of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and Ralph Richardson, with Richard Burton in the role of the composer himself, is any indication.
King Frederick Augustus II of Saxony, dozing and screaming during a tiresome band concert is even William Walton (yes, the William Walton). While Wagner is a shrewd, determined, and at times abrasive character, he also comes out as a rather insecure one.
But his battles against his own fears, other composers, political ideas, and multiple ample-cleavaged lovers en route to triumph at Bayreuth make for a lengthy but magnificent sight. Conductor Georg Solti provides an appropriately opulent Wagnerian score.