IMDb ratings (out of 10) and/or Rotten Tomatoes’ critics score (in percentages) are given for some of the films.
32 Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)
Although not exactly a household name these days, more than 50 years ago Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was huge. Gould (played by Colm Feore) was a Canadian classical pianist who could read and play music by the age of four. Early in his career, he gave concerts in Canada and the United States, where Leonard Bernstein was one of his admirers. He became one of the great concert pianists of his time, and then, abruptly in 1964, he gave his last concert and refused to perform in public ever again (foreshadowing the Beatles’ last public concert in 1966?), focusing on recordings and radio performances.
The film is structured into 32 segments that follow Gould’s life but also reflect the Goldberg Variations’ structure of 32 short movements (at least as played by Gould). Performance footage and recordings are Gould’s and interspersed with the narrative.
It’s the structure that makes the film. While organized chronologically, the vignettes offer quick and quirky glimpses into Gould’s life, one that Roger Ebert described as “lived curiously but well.” The finale—a Gould recording of Bach carried into deep space by a Voyager spacecraft—will leave you speechless. (7.4/92*)
Arthur Rubinstein – The Love of Life (1969)
Arthur Rubinstein is widely regarded as one of the great pianists of the 20th century. Many regard him as one of the greatest Chopin interpreters of all time. He played in public for eight decades.
This film, originally part of the PBS Lively Arts series, won the 1969 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Its features the musician playing parts of his repertoire live and includes conversations in which he talks about some of his favorite composers.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Liberace (Wladziu Valentino Liberace) is most remembered for his extravagant costumes and trademark candelabra placed on the lids of his flashy pianos. Liberace was adored by his audiences for his musical talent and unique showmanship. His Las Vegas show was a hit for nearly 30 years.
The film focuses on Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) relationship with Scott Thorsen (Matt Damon), a product of foster homes who moves in with Liberace and soon becomes his lover. Scott even becomes part of Liberace’s stage act, playing his chauffeur to drive him onstage in a Rolls Royce automobile for his performances. Eventually, conflicts between the pair and Liberace’s failing health destroy the relationship.
The movie does full justice both to Liberace’s stage persona and his everyday humanity—which was buried underneath the glitter, pomade and frills that he donned to entertain his audience. An accomplished classical musician by training, his gifts were often obscured by his flamboyance and unrelenting PR machine. Piano soundtrack performances by Liberace and Randy Kerber give the viewer a taste of his talent. (7.0/94)
Great Balls of Fire! (1989)
This semi-fictionalized account of the early career of Jerry Lee Lewis (Dennis Quaid) begins in 1956 when Lewis is trying to break into the business in a combo, playing his rollicking version of the music he has always been interested in – what he heard emanating from the black honky-tonks of the South.
Success, fame and money are arguably foremost on his mind. Against the odds – the Christian “moral majority” largely denouncing his type of music as that of the devil – he manages to achieve success.
The film disappointed film and music critics as too tepid, especially Quaid’s performance as the volatile rock and roller. Critics complained that certain historical facts were overly dramatized (his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin) while others, like depictions of the Louisiana juke joints that influenced his music, were inauthentic. But for rock history aficionados, the film manages to convey his onstage energy and musical contributions with affection.
Lewis recorded new versions of his old hits for Quaid to lip-sync (which Quaid does expertly), and the Killer has rarely thundered with more thrilling ferocity.
Green Book (2018)
Another set piece of the early 1960’s, Green Book involves a road trip – first through the Midwest and then into the Deep South – made by classical and jazz pianist and composer Don Shirley and his driver/bodyguard, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelongo, club bouncer and low-level gang enforcer.
Shirley’s record label gives Tony a copy of the “Green Book,” a guide for African-American travelers to find motels, restaurants, and filling stations that would serve them in the South.
Shirley recorded numerous albums, often combining jazz with a classical influence. Although he did not achieve recognition in his early career for classical music, he did find success later with his blending of musical genres.
After a screening, Quincey Jones Quincy Jones told a crowd: “I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Don Shirley while I was working as an arranger in New York in the ’50s, and he was without question one of America’s greatest pianists … as skilled a musician as Leonard Bernstein or Van Cliburn.”
Green Book was the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 2018. (8.2/77)
Scott Joplin (1977)
Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime,” was the first African-American composer to achieve mainstream recognition. The movie begins with Joplin’s early career as a “professor” playing popular American tunes in brothels across the Deep South, where he may have contracted the syphilis that eventually killed him.
With a growing desire to write and perform his own compositions, Joplin travels to St. Louis, where his “Maple Leaf Rag” is heard by John Stark, a sheet music publisher. Stark buys and sells the rights to the composition, sharing some of the profits with Joplin.
Unfortunately, the film then descends into a melodramatic portrayal of Joplin’s decline: tumultuous relationships, professional exploitation and betrayal, and finally decline into madness. Originally designed as a made-for-TV movie, it’s been criticized for production deficiencies and “turgid” biopic details.
Yet the music is infectious and the musical bio details interesting enough. After seeing it for the first time as a kid, I made a beeline to my local music store and bought a book of Joplin’s complete rags that I own to this day. (6.7/75)
Seymour: An Introduction (2014)
Seymour: An Introduction is a 2014 documentary directed by Ethan Hawke that documents the career of Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist who abandoned his rising career as a concert pianist to retreat to a more modest, private life as a music educator and composer.
The film is a charming, warm look at a man who may make you rethink what “greatness” means. Said one critic, “this remarkable and remarkably elegant (there’s a word I’m not sure I’ve ever applied to a documentary before, but it fits here) film from Ethan Hawke about his friend, classical pianist and sometime-composer Seymour Bernstein, is one of early delights of 2015.” (Ken Hanke)
Bernstein skirts around his personal history, but we know he has lived alone in a one-room Manhattan apartment for almost six decades. Chopin, Schubert, and Beethoven may be his steadiest companions. (7.5/100)
Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1985)
This atmospheric documentary about the life of pianist and jazz great Thelonious Monk features live performances by Monk and his band, and interviews with friends and family about the offbeat genius.
Monk gathered other geniuses around him – John Coltrane was a member of his Blue Note band in the late 1950s—and he recorded, composed, jammed, inspired and produced music that changed jazz forever. “Mercifully, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser refrains from trying to explain genius. It simply stands back and allows his genuine originality and unorthodoxy to make their own impression.” (Jay Carr, TCM) (7.6/83)
Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic (1985)
Vladimir Horowitz, Russian-born classical pianist, is universally considered to be one of the greatest pianists of all time. He was known for his virtuoso technique, tone color, and the excitement engendered by his playing.
The Last Romantic, made at Horowitz’s home, features performances of some of Horowitz’s favorite repertoire and sheds light on his thoughts and opinions on music. During the film Horowitz often jokes and talks about his favorite composers: Sergei Rachmaninoff (also his friend), Frédéric Chopin, and Alexander Scriabin. Horowitz’s wife, Wanda, daughter of conductor Arturo Toscanini, contributes her share to the discussions; she shows photo albums and reminisces about their past.
Horowitz performs works by Mozart, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin. “And there are the fingers: limber, graceful, strong and, particularly in one of the Chopin movements, marvelously spirited. ‘That was not bad, you know, for an old man,’ the pianist compliments himself.” (Walter Goodman, NYT) (8.9)
What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, this film tracks Nina Simone’s musical genius and her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. As a young musician, Simone’s interests were in classical music, especially Bach. Upon reaching maturity, however, she realized that African-American musicians struggled to be recognized in the classical music arena; instead, they were often pigeon-holed as entertainers.
On stage, Simone was known for her free, uninhibited musical expression, which enthralled audiences and attracted life-long fans. During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, Simone struggled to reconcile her artistic identity and ambition with her devotion to the cause. At the height of her fame, Simone walked away from her family, country, and career to move to Liberia. This documentary explains what happened to the iconic singer/pianist and the external and internal demons she faced.
Director Liz Garbus uses conversations with friends and associates of Ms. Simone, archived interviews, previously unseen footage, and especially her personal letters and diary entries to get a clear view of what was going on in her mind. “A portrait of a soul torn apart by forces beyond it and within it.” (Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice) (7.6/88)