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Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (Blu-ray Review)

21 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
Box Office $0.2 million
$29.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.

The only drawback to this consistent grabber on a mesmerizing subject is the title. It’s likely that no one will ever get to the “inner” of the still revered Canadian concert pianist and brilliant Bach interpreter, even though (as we see in plenty of archival evidence) he was thoroughly outgoing in interviews and blessed with a sense of humor, even about himself. One amusing clip shows Gould going through complex labors to get his piano bench close to the floor, which is where he liked it. Other familiar traits had to do with his choice of apparel. He may have done more for scarves than anyone since Isadora Duncan (though with happier results).

The danger in this is that after a while, the traits might obscure the music — though his music remains popular almost 30 years after his death. What’s more, there’s ample evidence that Gould was knowing and shrewd about crafting his image. This is how one can get to the point where, laboring in a profession or calling where it wouldn’t seem likely, people compare you to James Dean (a link one observer makes here).

Co-directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, Genius avoids a pitfall that afflicts many historical documentaries: the lack of archival material. Here, there seems to be plenty, and the filmmakers have dug it out the way those wizard sleuths who put together the bonus sections on Criterion releases do. We learn of Gould’s upbringing as an only child, and there are several on-camera remembrances of one lifelong friend, who was obviously put through the ringer satisfying that chore. A long-ago girl friend is interviewed, as is another woman who studied music with him, and it’s also made clear that though Gould fulfilled (despite good looks) certain qualities of a nerd stereotype, there was a part of him that liked the outdoors. In a certain regard, this portrait of him reminds me of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s in Jon Else’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Day After Trinity, one of my favorite movies of all time. The A-bomb’s father liked the outdoors, too, and both men enjoyed the ladies (with reciprocation).

Gould made his American debut at 22 in 1955, and a Columbia Records executive was in the audience. Next day: Recording contract. His initial choice was Bach’s challenging Goldberg Variations and a landmark recording even more famous than Woody Allen’s crack about what he once thought they were (“what Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg did on their wedding night”). A couple years later, Gould conquered the Soviet Union in tense Cold War times, serving up Bach in a country where it wasn’t played much and dazzling overflow audiences (by 1100, which is more like a tsunami) that included Vladimir Ashkenazy, who’s interviewed here.

But he didn’t like touring or audiences or hotels — and especially didn’t like performing at home in Toronto. So in 1964, he just up and quit making live appearances — and never did again until his 1982 death at 50 from a stroke after years of well-publicized hypochondria and, ironically, an aversion to hospitals. Such a life decision might stop a lot of biopics in their tracks, but Gould continued to record — and was ahead of his time in terms of recording technologies and their potential. He embarked on outside projects, including one that is responsible for an interview of one of the last people you’d expect to see here unless you know their professional history: prolific ‘60s hit maker Petula Clark, now in her late 70s.

And then there’s the sticky love life. Gould greatly admired musician Lukas Foss and went further than that with the latter’s painter wife Cornelia — who left her husband (taking their two children) to go live with Gould in anticipation of wedlock. It didn’t work out, and the now grown children were understandably confused — though it doesn’t keep them from speaking fondly of Gould.

In 1993, director/co-writer Francois Girard did Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which, as the title suggests, was a more elliptical portrait. The two films complement each other and would make an interesting pairing, though perhaps on consecutive nights. This telling is pretty intense, though in a rewarding way — one of the most magnetic chronicles of a real-life musician since Bruce Weber’s 1988 Let's Get Lost (about Chet Baker). And for some of the same reasons.

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