(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: This 139-minute documentary of Ludwig van Beethoven is the most intelligent film biography of a composer I have seen. By featuring great musicians and conductors giving their commentary on the music itself this film is a step more intelligent than most musical biographies. Beethoven's music is transcendent and washes over the viewer. Phil Grabsky writes, directs, and even films this account. Juliet Stevenson narrates. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10

When I was growing up, the classic screen music biography in my house was Charles Vidor's A SONG TO REMEMBER, with Cornel Wilde as Frederic Chopin and Paul Muni as his teacher. Most composer biographies, whether they are dramatic or documentary, tell the story of a life, all or in part, and simply play the music to illustrate the composer's work and hopefully for the audience to enjoy. Here is the composer; here is the music he wrote. I have not seen Phil Grabsky's earlier film IN SEARCH OF MOZART, but IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN does something that I have not encountered before. As a documentary it brings in experts and as often as they talk about Ludwig van Beethoven, they talk about the music itself. The man sheds light on the music but also the music sheds light on the man. For example, Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda talks about how the first chord of the First Symphony was intended as a shock to the audience to announce that a new kind of music was coming. Cellist David Waterman hears the same music and tells us that from the music one can hear the composer "bursting with confidence" in his own genius. Just hearing the music would be nice, but to hear experts deeply involved with the music telling what they hear in the music is a unique approach. Among the expert witnesses are Emanuel Ax, Jonathan Biss, Riccardo Chailly, Alban Gerhardt, Janine Jansen, Roger Norrington, Ilona Schmiel, and Lars Vogt.

One downside of having the expert opinions is the use of a few basic terms perhaps beyond a beginner. There is not much beyond terms like "pizzicato", but some rudimentary knowledge is assumed. The story is told with some humor. Beethoven had large hands and some of the music he wrote intentionally required stretches that would have been physically impossible for some pianists. His presence would be less than uplifting for those around him. He threw books at people. If he felt too hot some evening he would overturn a pitcher of water over his head and let it drip down to the apartment below him. Some of the story is also tragic. He had his great depression in his deafness, and his feelings of betrayal when his former hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, crowned himself emperor. Napoleon is replaced in his love by Humanity as a whole, topped by the last movement of his Ninth Symphony with its famous setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy". Writer/director Phil Grabsky gives us the twin tragedy that Mozart lost his life so early and Beethoven lost his hearing also early.

Grabsky then has really three different things he is trying to do with this biography. He is documenting the life of Beethoven, he is illustrating the life with brilliant concert performers playing the music, but he is also having those same experts talking about what is in the music itself. And because he has three agenda to present to do justice to each he has made the film long, 139 minutes. One place where these goals are in conflict is that Grabsky has people talking over the music in the main body of the documentary. The DVD comes with a second disk that includes several of the complete symphonic movements and other pieces played by the same famous musicians without voiceovers or interruptions.

Even those who think they know about the life of Beethoven should find plenty of interest in this documentary account. I rate IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper