Would Someone Please Make a Great Beethoven Biopic?


Trust me, Immortal Beloved (1999) was not that movie.

For some reason, Hollywood directors and producers seem to lack any sense of realism or even coherence when it comes to stories about classical composers.  For example, the subjects of many Hollywood classical composer biopics die at the piano (according to the screenplays, not according to credible biographers):

Magic Fire (1956), biopic about opera composer Richard Wagner.    At the end of this movie, religious groups around Europe are concerned about how Wagner is going to handle sacred matters in his opera Parsifal.  They send composer Franz Liszt (at this point an abbe of the Catholic Church) to have a word with him.  While Wagner is speaking to Liszt about the religious significance of Parsifal, he dies at the piano.

Song of Love (1947), biopic about composer Robert Schumann.  Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara, mentor young composer Johannes Brahms.  Meanwhile, Schumann starts hearing phantom music in his head, goes insane, and is placed in an asylum.  Clara visits him one day; Robert plays his composition Traumerei for her–and dies at the piano.

A Song to Remember (1945), biopic about composer Frederic Chopin.  Historically, Chopin died from consumption (tuberculosis).  In this movie, at least we don’t have to see Chopin die at the piano.  We just see him coughing up blood at the piano.

The Americans teamed up with the Brits to make up for that last example.  Impromptu (1991) is a delightful romp wherein young Turks of the early 19th century (Chopin, George Sand, Alfred de Musset, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix) meet up at a rich bitch’s country estate and create total havoc.  It doesn’t pretend, though, to be an actual biopic.  (By the way, you can get it at amazon.com.)

My point here is that I cannot think of anyone who has created a serious, quality bio about one specific classical composer.  Amadeus (1984), is often cited as a biopic about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  However, it’s actually a drama concerning the nature of genius.  The main character in the movie (and the play from which it was adapted) is Antonio Salieri, not Mozart.  Mozart is a supporting character in the drama.

I started out by disqualifying Immortal Beloved as a great bio about Beethoven.  Here’s my position on that topic:  The producers of this film threw a lot of money at the project.  They got a young and upcoming British director (Bernard Rose) who had already made some quality movies.  They cast the brilliant Gary Oldman as Beethoven, and he plays the part well.  They used great, current recordings of Beethoven performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.  So far, so good.

My problem is with the plot and its denouement.  The story centers on a mysterious love letter which in real life was actually found among Beethoven’s effects after he died.  Just as in Citizen Kane, a character goes around interviewing potential candidates in order to discover who the mysterious object of the letter is.  In real life, no historian has conclusively proven the identity of the “Immortal Beloved” referenced in the letter.   The solution proposed in this film is patently absurd and completely uncharacteristic of the serious relationships that Beethoven had with his women.  I generally don’t mind it when screenwriters play with facts in a biopic to enhance the drama.  But the way it’s done it here makes for a huge letdown, especially if you’re already familiar with Beethoven’s life and music.

So, I’m still waiting for that great movie about a great composer.  Maybe I’ve missed it.  Any comments?

Please, no references to Ken Russell films.  They’re just whackadoodle.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s