I didn’t see Whiplash, which was written and directed by a thirtyish filmmaker named Damien Chazelle. Have you heard of him? I have. Because I did see Grand Piano, his previous screenwriting credit. Grand Piano takes place mostly on stage during a Classical Music Concert—believe me, this movie capitalizes. Elijah Wood plays a Famous Pianist who, during the Concert, through an earbud or something?, is communicating with a sniper, played by John Cusack, who has threatened to kill him if he misplays a single note.
It’s a strange little movie. It’s strange that such famous people are in it. It’s strange that it seems to take its concept so seriously. It is, yes, a novel concept. Music had to be written around every turn of the screenplay—the several implausible instances, for example, when the pianist leaves the stage mid-piece and the music continues.
There are small, revealing inaccuracies and falsities of writing throughout the story; it appears, in sum, to have been written by people who have never personally attended an orchestra concert. But the larger issue is the basic dramatic premise, the necessity of playing every single note correctly. There is this pervading theme of technical perfection versus expressive/“emotional” musicianship, which is simply juvenile. These things are not mutually exclusive, as every grown-up musician knows. The pianist-hero eventually “triumphs” against the sniper—and, we suppose, his analogues of fear and self-doubt in the pianist’s mind—by playing an intentional wrong note. “The audience couldn’t tell,” he says, and the script doesn’t even realize what a snotty and condescending line this is.
It is a trope of lazy young pianists everywhere to justify insufficient practice by arguing they “get” the music in their souls and can play expressively. The truth, in the real world of adult music-making, is that everyone plays the notes correctly, or they don’t get the gig, and many of them don’t get the gig regardless. Every professional orchestra audition is full of people playing the notes correctly.
Anyway dramatizing music-making with a mythic “impossible piece,” like the one at the center of Grand Piano, is not just immature; it is the manifestation of a vacuous and unhealthy view of what music is. Because music is not about ever-heightening gradations of difficulty; it is not, in most cultures, in most of history, or where it’s at its best, about a Promethean hero achieving something impossible to the plebeian audience. In fact this is why people hate Classical Music in our culture; Classical Music capitalizes itself too extensively. It tries to impress us with talent and genius, tries to convince us that its practitioners are doing something amazing that we could never dream of doing, when really we don’t want to be outdone, we just want to be spoken to. Music is about conveying something that matters, and it is about reciprocity. It’s not a track meet. It’s a conversation.
Now, I recognize that Grand Piano is a silly film with a bonkers, stagy, B-movie concept, and that a person is probably supposed to just have fun with it; but actually it conveys a worldview which is hurtful to real people and should not be taken at face value. You’ll find, if you read the biographies of artists, that the simplistic equation of musical “success” with quantified athletic-style prowess has wrecked actual lives. And more broadly, classical music (in its many forms) has suffered in our culture because of people viewing it through this capitalistic, zero-sum lens. For me music is—among other things—a utopian social idea and a spiritual practice, not an athletic feat. The latter is something people will buy expensive tickets to see. The former is something they can participate in and which might transform their lives for the better.
Most of the above was written in emails to friends after I saw Grand Piano, and I retread it now because I have a few things to say about Inside Llewyn Davis, a film which is hugely fairer and more respectful to music and to musicians.
Most music movies are built on the model of sports movies, culminating in a competition which our protagonist would like to win. When music is not dramatized athletically, it is usually dramatized romantically. The drama becomes less about achievement and more about relationship. I’m thinking of a few other movies about music: Almost Famous, Once, Amadeus. The latter is, of course, a Mozart biopic with a lavishly romanticized view of “genius” which is every bit as specious and dangerous as the perspective on musicianship in Grand Piano. I’ll talk more about Amadeus later. Almost Famous and Once have more unusual approaches to the dramatization of music, less representative of Hollywood norms than Grand Piano, Amadeus, or—I hear--Whiplash.
Neither of these movies is actually about music. They are about love. In short, Almost Famous is about love of music. Once is about love through music.
Almost Famous is not a movie about great musicians. It is about people who love music. The protagonist is not a musician, but an aspiring journalist. The guys in the band are not the personifications of music; that is the Kate Hudson character, the elusive Penny Lane (her name refers directly to nostalgia toward a place that no longer exists—relationship will be difficult, here). There is not much actual music-making in the story. The band is shown on stage playing a tune, but the movie soon cuts away to its true topics, the characters backstage who love the music.
What is most emphasized? When you talk to people about Almost Famous, what do they mention? Generally the “Tiny Dancer” scene, a dramatically pivotal moment in which music brings the characters together, and the only time we meaningfully hear a song in its entirety. But it is not their own music that brings them together, not the activity of music-making at all. It’s listening to a famous recording by Elton John—a musician they have never, we assume, actually met. Relationship will be difficult, here.
Also likely to receive mention is the memorably drawn Penny Lane character. But she is barely real, even in the world of the movie; and she is not a musician. In this sense Once is unusual, as its main characters are musicians in the story, and we are asked to identify with them—identify with people making music, not just people listening to it. Music is no longer an unattainable dream; now it is part of the fabric of social life. Love through music: this nice little movie captures quite well the feeling of playing music with someone you’re in love with. If it seems sentimental, well, so is the lived experience.
There are other movie musicals about musicians, or more specifically singers; again Once is something a bit different, because its characters also play instruments on camera. If you want to get a sense for how unusual this has become, pull up Chico Marx playing piano in A Night at the Opera (1935). There he is, in the middle of a narrative film, just playing unbelievable piano for a couple minutes. “This is great playing, great musicianship and showmanship,” they said. “Let’s put it on screen.”
Which brings us back to Inside Llewyn Davis, a narrative film full of musical performances. This movie is not romantic. This time our personification of music is the title character. He is, unlike Penny Lane, human—which is to say, as real as everyone else in the movie. He has the capability of creating transcendent beauty; he is also persistently mean, irresponsible, and self-defeating.
Charlie Haden said something amazing in an interview with Terry Gross:
“One of the great things that improvising teaches you is the magic of the moment you’re in and the importance of living in the moment. The artist is very lucky because in an art form that’s spontaneous like that, that’s when you really see your true self. And that’s why, when I put down my instrument, that’s when the challenge starts. To learn how to be that kind of human being at that level you are when you’re playing…that’s the key, that’s the hard part.”
This is how Inside Llewyn Davis dramatizes music, if I might presume to encapsulate its very subtle premise. Inside Llewyn Davis dramatizes the challenge of being a musician and also being a human, of reaching a sort of perfection in one’s art and finding that perfection nowhere else in one’s life.
There are musical performances throughout the film, all of them done for real, on set by the actors. There are three of special dramatic importance: one at the beginning, one at the end, and one in the middle, when Llewyn plays “The Death of Queen Jane” for Bud Grossman, a music-industry higher-up.
Observe that this movie’s form and argument are musical. What is the cat? A theme, a motive, an idée fixe. What is this Chicago road trip that brings Llewyn to Grossman? A contrasting episode in the great sad rondo of Llewyn’s life in New York. The sonata-rondo is a better model for this story than the Freytag pyramid.
And the songs are, importantly, allowed to speak for themselves all throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, but the performance of “The Death of Queen Jane” is unique in its emphasis. It is a quiet center to the film, speaking from its core. Llewyn rarely fails to be a cantankerous asshole; nonetheless he succeeds in getting Bud Grossman’s ears. We suppose he might somehow self-sabotage. He does not. He plays a beautiful song beautifully. Because that’s just what this person does. He does it every day. It is not hard for him to play that song beautifully—not anymore. If this story took place in the world of Grand Piano, one might be concerned that Llewyn will play a wrong note. Instead the movie is adult enough to know that the melody and the chords are automatic for this performer. Of course he plays it beautifully. From back to front, and we hear the whole thing, so we are allowed a real sense of the world the music conjures. As Oscar Isaac performs “The Death of Queen Jane,” Llewyn Davis becomes the “true self” of Charlie Haden’s description.
And then the challenge starts. There is a pregnant silence. And Grossman says, “I’m not seeing any money here.”
But Llewyn is not surprised. He barely reacts. This is not the first time his effort has fallen on deaf ears, and he knows it won’t be the last. He is aware how shitty the world can be outside the music, how shitty he can be outside the music. If Grossman didn’t like his choice of song, maybe that says more about Grossman than it does about Davis, who has been turned down a thousand times and kept playing anyway. The point of this performance is that it’s transfixing, and the movie dares to suggest that this might not matter.
Bud Grossman is played, in just one of the Coens’ brilliant dramatic ironies, by F. Murray Abraham, who portrayed Salieri in Amadeus. That film’s attitude toward music-making is crude, reductive, and disrespectful. Salieri is simply not good enough, not the “genius” that Mozart is depicted to effortlessly be. This is a fucking lie, and again, it wouldn’t matter if the mindset behind it weren’t still giving real-world pianists tendonitis. The real Salieri was an important composer who lived a meaningful musical life. He wrote 37 operas. If we no longer hear his music very often, that is not necessarily his fault, and it does not make him a retrospective failure.
Many critics have described Llewyn Davis as Salieri to Bob Dylan’s Mozart. This is false, and actually antithetical. Unlike Salieri, Llewyn is not depicted as lacking talent. He is a dick, but he can play. He is not given success, but he is allowed his musicianship. Here is respect. This movie knows that success is not solely a matter of playing the right notes or even playing them beautifully, but also of timing, coincidences of history, and not being an asshole. At no moment does the movie argue that Dylan is a better musician than Llewyn or Dave Van Ronk, the character’s real-world inspiration. I suspect the Coens might actually believe the opposite, but there’s no textual support for this, because in this film, “better” and “worse” are not useful descriptors. The movie doesn’t care who’s “better,” because it recognizes that we are not at a basketball game. Here is respect.
Dylan appears in the final sequence for a brief, sideways glance. But the movie does not dwell on him, because his performance is of no dramatic importance. Actually it is only a red herring for the richer personal drama reaching its apex.
Here is the crux of my argument about Inside Llewyn Davis, and it returns to musical formal analogy. It’s a little bit of a sonata, this movie. In a sonata form, the initial section contrasts two themes. One is in the home key, the second in a different key. Andrew Norman described this principle quite amiably on the podcast Meet the Composer: something is wrong the first time, he suggests, and we spend most of the piece working over the fundamental conflict, so we can return to the same material at the end and get everything right. The discrepancy of key is resolved. The elements are brought to concord.
This is precisely what happens in Inside Llewyn Davis. The opening sequence returns at the end. One more tune, he tells us in the opening. But we don’t hear the whole performance. The movie cuts away to after. Then the story ensues, and we are not told its events all take place in a sort of flashback. When the ending sequence returns us to the same night at the Gaslight Cafe, we might not even realize it’s decisively the final event of the story, but for one critical difference.
The centerpiece of the soundtrack is “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” performed on record by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford. In the movie this performance is by Llewyn and his former duo partner, Mike, who committed suicide before the story begins. His absence hangs over every moment. Occasionally Llewyn performs the famous song alone, but it doesn’t go well. In the most violent and therefore most memorable instance of Llewyn’s assholery, he is singing “Fare Thee Well” in the home of his charitable friends, the Gorfeins. (It has been speculated that the Gorfeins are Mike’s parents.) Kind Lillian joins Llewyn, singing Mike’s higher vocal line on the chorus. Llewyn stops playing, blows up at her, and leaves in a rage. “Mike’s part,” he calls it. “That’s Mike’s part.”
At the end, when Llewyn performs “Fare Thee Well” at the Gaslight, we see what we weren’t shown in the scene’s first iteration. When he proceeds to the chorus, he leaps up to Mike’s part. He takes the higher line. It’s the only time in the movie he does this.
Everyone writing on this film suggests Llewyn is in a Sisyphean loop, condemned to play the same shitty gig for the same low pay, always overshadowed by Dylan or his dead partner, over and over again forever. By taking Mike’s line, Llewyn hops out of the loop. He resolves the conflict of key. He reveals us to be in the recapitulation, not just another endless exposition. It turns out that he has, actually, gone somewhere and learned something and changed in some way during this ostensibly monochromatic story. And the choice he makes to show us this subtle development—it’s a musical choice. This movie’s argument is musical. The difference in the final scene, the moment that unlocks the drama, is subtle enough that only someone listening to the film musically will notice.
Let’s be clear: the tone here is dark, and the movie is not telling us that Llewyn’s path is easy. He ends the story getting beaten up in an alley—again. This isn’t lost on me. Again, the point is not that he wins, because it’s not a competition. We know Llewyn isn’t Dylan, and so does he. The point is that he still gets to be a good musician. The point is that no matter what happens outside the songs, he still has his true self.
Narrative films generally use music. Their view of it is accordingly uncomplicated, perhaps even exploitative. A movie uses music to make its audience feel a certain thing at a certain moment. It helps people know when they’re supposed to be scared, inspired, following exposition, or falling in love. It selects music for surface characteristics that seem to carry these tones. So it’s no surprise that usually when a movie turns to music as a subject, its view remains uncomplicated, and music becomes just another battlefield where the standard Hollywood conflicts can rage onward. How refreshing to encounter a movie that neither athleticizes music nor romanticizes it, but simultaneously suggests that music won’t save your life, but it might save your soul. Here is relationship.
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