Sunday, September 12, 2010

Piano Man

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

Directed by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont

Opens September 10, 2010

There’s an unexpected moment in Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, the revealing documentary of the mercurial Canadian pianist. It comes when Gould admits he was a fan of 60s pop singer Petula Clark, even producing a radio program--one of several he did in Toronto following his retirement from performing--about her.

This short anecdote--which includes an interview with Clark, who never met Gould--shows us a Gould more complex than merely the “tortured artist” stereotype that’s usually trotted out. Instead, we see a warmer, even affable individual whose very real eccentricities were tolerated until they overtook his personality.

Gould was a classical music superstar from the 1950s until his death in 1982, even though he stopped performing live in 1964. His unique interpretations of the piano literature--particularly the music of J.S. Bach, whose Goldberg Variations were Gould’s first and last recordings in 1956 and 1982, the latter released months before his death at age 50 due to a stroke--made him legendary in a world known for its staid conservatism.

Genius Within humanizes a man usually placed on an untouchable pedestal as a Canadian icon, thanks primarily to vintage interview footage in which Gould, relaxed and chatty, discusses his art near his beloved house on Lake Simcoe in Ontario, a quiet oasis to which he’d escape after each grueling concert tour he came to loathe.

The directors also hear from people who knew Gould well. Childhood friend John P.L. Roberts relates engaging stories of Gould as a young man, and Cornelia Foss--wife of composer Lukas Foss--talks about how she fell in love with Gould, left her husband and moved to Toronto with her two kids. Although they had a few good years together, she eventually left Gould after his eccentricities began overwhelming him.

These “personality aberrations” (as one interviewee describes them) at first seemed merely weird, like his humming along to the music as he played, but later, when he began taking his blood pressure and pulse maniacally every day and took all kinds of pills for his assorted--and made-up--ills, they ultimately took control of his life, probably hastening his demise.

Genius Within has its share of illuminating insights into Gould’s artistry, like an explanation of his unorthodox piano-playing technique or Leonard Bernstein telling a Carnegie Hall audience that, even though he didn’t agree with Gould’s interpretation of a Brahms concerto, he’d conduct it anyway. These details reinforce the impression of Gould as a singular artist and forceful personality, a man more than worthy of the kind of unbiased biography Hozer and Raymont have made.

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