For those of you who’ve never heard of him, Glenn Gould was an eccentric but very gifted Canadian pianist, who died in 1982 at the age of 50. Widely regarded as one of the great classical pianists of the 20th century, his career took some strange turns.
At the age of 32, he decided that live concerts were too imperfect, and so took to only playing the piano in the recording studio, so a lot of people never got to hear him live. Also, he was a recluse and seemed to like to keep to himself.
But, despite that, he wrote quite a lot of articles and things to show us that he had quite a quick and well-developed wit (in addition to being an insightful musician). Also, those who knew him, told stories of how he would ring them on the phone and chat for hours and hours. So this over-clinginess on the one hand, seemed to balance off his reclusiveness on the other.
So how do you make a film about a guy like this? In the end, the approach Canadian director Francois Girard took is rather unorthodox, but also somehow fitting. He made 32 short films (one for every 32 of Bach’s Goldberg Variations), each of which shows various facets of Gould’s life.
Most of them are dramatised, with Colm Feore playing Glenn Gould, but there are a few which just consist of talking heads of real people who knew Gould when he was alive.
One of my favourites that I could mention is one where Glenn is in a hotel in Hamburg, Germany. A maid is cleaning the room, while he’s sending a telegram over the phone. In the middle of all this, a package arrives containing his latest record. The maid is about to leave, but Glenn grabs her, asks her to sit down, and puts on this record.
It’s interesting, because as a beautifully played piece of Bach starts to play, we see the maid move from being rather perplexed by what’s going on, to visibly enjoying the music, to finally realising that this strange man is actually the pianist she’s listening to.
Some of the others are more unusual – such as one that just consists of Glenn narrating all the different medications he’s taking and what their side effects are (towards the end of his life, he was on large amounts of medication for his blood pressure and other things that ultimately killed him.
Then there are poignant ones – we see the Steinway piano that he played at his live concerts. As we hear Bach being played, the camera moves across the strings, zooming in on the moving keys. Then, at the end, we see two stagehands packaging the piano up – never to be played on stage by Glenn ever again.
All in all, it doesn’t really take the place of a conventional linear film about the man. But then again, if it was linear, we’d have to have things like plot and character development, and tension, and all of those things that we need in Hollywood biopics. By taking this approach, this film avoids all of those cliches. However, as a consequence, I think it leaves us a little too distant from this man. That said, though . . . I think that’s kind of the way Glenn would have liked it.
3 1/2 out of 5.