Exploring Cinema’s Take on Our Favorite Composer Biopics

musicals, classical composers biography, classic moviesThe new film Mozart’s Sister puts an unprecedented spin on the legend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, focusing on the life of his older sister Maria Anna, known familiarly as “Nannerl.” Herself a musical prodigy, Nannerl’s expertise at composition and violin were stifled by her father. She was forced to forgo her virtuoso violin playing to back her younger brother on harpsichord as he impressed the courts of 18th century Europe. She’s told by her father that she cannot become a composer because she’s a woman, a restriction common at the time. The film makes the point that Nannerl could have made a significant contribution to musical history if sexual politics were different in her place and time.

The premise is intriguing and, as handled by director Rene Feret (father of delicate lead actress Marie Feret), makes for a fascinating companion piece to Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning Amadeus, which featured Tom Hulce as the childish genius and F. Murray Abraham as his composer rival Antonio Salieri.

Of course, both views of Mozart take ample liberties with the facts. This seems to be commonplace, with Hollywood biopics in general, and screenplays about composers specifically.

Consider these other films about composers that have come down the classical musical lane:

The Great Waltz (1938): Nineteenth century Vienna waltz king Johann Strauss’ life is the focus of this saga from Julien Duvivier, with Fernand Gravey as the bank clerk determined to have a career in music. Backed by an astute publisher, Strauss’ music becomes popular and he marries his childhood sweetheart (Luise Rainer), but eventually falls in love with an opera singer (real-life opera star Miliza Korjus, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in her first and only role).

Cameo Appearances: Emperor Franz Josef (Henry Hull).

Backstory: The film was remade in 1972 by Song of Norway director Andrew L. Stone. Horst Bucholz starred as Strauss; Mary Costa, who supplied the voice of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, had the female lead.

The Critics Applaud?: Variety: The Great Waltz is a field day for music lovers plus elegant entertainment. Producers were nearly two years on this film, but the extra effort shows in the nicety with which its many component parts fit together. It is Luise Rainer who makes the film.

movie biography, classic movies, musicalsA Song to Remember (1945): Cornel Wilde plays Frederick Chopin, the Polish composer and freedom fighter tutored by a German music teacher (Paul Muni), whose politics get him in trouble. He’s forced to flee to France where he gets involved with Georg Sand (Merle Oberon), an author with a penchant for cross-dressing. Chopin neglects his political interests, but eventually goes on tour while ailing, hoping to help his Polish comrades gain independence from Czarist Russia. (Similar ground was covered in Impromptu, the 1991 Chopin bio from director James Lapine.)

Cameo Appearance: Franz Lizst (Stephen Berkassy).

Background Story: Columbia Pictures topper Harry Cohn tried to hire either Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein to play Chopin’s music for the film. Both passed on the offers—Horowitz because he objected to the studio’s insistence on drastically cutting the songs for the film, and Rubinstein due to the fact that Cohn yelled “Hiya, Ruby” when he met him.

The Critics Applaud?: The New York Times: Since movie producers usually approach classical music in an obvious state of trepidation, Columbia Pictures deserves to be heartily congratulated for the generous assortment of Chopin’s popular piano compositions rendered in the new music-drama, or quasi-biographical study of the Polish composer, called “A Song to Remember.”

Song of Scheherazade (1947): Jean-Pierre Aumont makes a dashing Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the Russian composer inspired to pen the title song after meeting the lovely Yvonne De Carlo, following a long ship journey while in the Navy. Will she appear at the St. Petersburg Opera house in time to dance on opening night to his composition?

Cameo Appearance: None, really.

Backstory: Charles Kullman, who plays ship passenger Dr. Kiln, gets to sing two songs in the picture. He was a tenor with the Metropolitan Opera at the time.

The Critics Applaud?: Motion Picture Daily: Scheherazade is decidedly designed to hurdle the commercial limitations of classical music with whimsical and wholly flavorsome approach. No monumental tribute to a great composer, the film is bantam weight, but yet is mirthful and carefully made.

Song Without End (1960): The life of composer/pianist/conductor Franz Liszt is put under a microscope in this biography boasting Dirk Bogarde as the musical genius and classical superstar whose romantic life gets about as much as screen time as his musical prowess. You see, Liszt, who was sort of a rock star of his time, has a thing for a Russian princess (Capucine) while involved with a countess (Genevieve Paige).

Cameo Appearances: Georg Sand (Patricia Morison) and Richard Wagner (Lyndon Brook).

Background Story: Director Charles Vidor (A Song to Remember) died during the early stages of filming and was replaced by the great George Cukor (A Star is Born).

The Critics Applaud?: Bosley Crowther, The New York Times: It is thus an excess of riches, musical and visual, telescoped in order to pack as much in as possible, that makes for distraction in this film.

The Music Lovers (1970): No stranger to movies about classical composers, Ken Russell made acclaimed biographies for British TV and later did films on Liszt and Mahler. He brought an inventive, over-the-top style to his features, including this study of the world of Peter Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain), whose romantic dalliances with members of either sex (nobleman Christopher Gable, prostitute Glenda Jackson) are colorfully explored. Many liberties have been taken in this fantasy-filled, dialogue-light film that has divided audiences for decades. Still, The Music Lovers is wonderfully alive, thanks in part to Russell’s stunning visuals and the sound of the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn.

Cameo Appearance: Alexei Sofronov, Tchaikovsky’s young lover and valet (Bruce Robinson, future director of Withnail and I and The Rum Diary)

Background Story: Alan Bates, who starred in Russell’s Women in Love, was offered the lead but backed out.

The Critics Applaud?: Time Magazine: The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name is allowed to shriek and bluster in The Music Lovers.

Song of Norway (1970): A large-scale biopic of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, starring Toralv Maurstad as the musical prodigy who rises from poverty after graduating from a conservatory to have scandalous romances with his cousin (Florence Henderson) and a wealthy woman (Christina Schollin) with an influential father. At the same time, Grieg attempts to compose the national music for his country.

Cameo Appearances: Henrik Ibsen (Frederick Jaeger), Franz Liszt (Henry Gilbert) and Hans Christian Andersen (Richard Wordsworth).

Backstory: The film, a major flop presented in some theaters in single camera Cinerama format, was based on a Broadway hit which ran from 1944 to 1946 for 860 performances. At that time, Universal was going to film it with Deanna Durbin in the lead.

The Critics Applaud?: Harry Secombe, co-star: It’s the kind of movie you could take the kids to see…and leave them there.

Spring Symphony (1983): A provocative look at the love life and music of Germany’s Robert Schumann (Herbert Gronemeyer) who becomes romantically entangled with Clara Wieck (Nastassja Kinski), a musical prodigy who happens to be his mentor’s young daughter.

Cameo Appearance: Felix Mendelssohn (Andre Heller), Niccolo Paganini (Gidon Kremer).

Backstory: Gronemeyer, who plays Robert Schumann, bears a resemblance to Nastassja Kinski’s father, actor Klaus Kinski.

The Critics Applaud?: Walter Goodman, The New York Times: The real music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and others, in addition to Schumann, is delivered in a rich mix with the candles, crystal, carpets, cobblestones and collectibles that the art director, Alfred Hirschmeier, has assembled in lush display. The violins glow along with their music.

Topsy-Turvy (1999): A change-of-pace from British domestic drama improv specialist Mike Leigh, this wonderful film looks at the relationship between W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) after their flop Princess Ida and the events that led to their writing and staging of their classic, The Mikado.

Cameo Appearance: Theater impresario and agent Richard D’Oyly Carte (Ron Cook).

Backstory: The success of the film actually sparked renewed interest in the works of Gilbert & Sullivan, and led to new productions throughout the United Kingdom. Topsy-Turvy won two Academy Awards (for Best Makeup and Best Costume Design) as well as the Best Picture award from the New York Film Critics and tied with Being John Malkovich for Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics.

The Critics Applaud?: Janet Maslin, The New York Times: Mike Leigh’s grandly entertaining “Topsy-Turvy” is one of those films that create a mix of erudition, pageantry and delectable acting opportunities, much as “Shakespeare in Love” did last year. Instead of a lovestruck young playwright, it presents the curiously matched personalities of the librettist William Schwenk Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan in the midst of a robust, knowing, frequently hilarious look at the musical theater over which they held sway.

Copying Beethoven (2006): There is no shortage of films about the composer—Bernard Rose’s well-liked Immortal Beloved and Paul Morrissey’s not-so well-liked Beethoven’s Nephew among them—but this fictionalized account of the last years in the life of Ludwig Von by Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) was so sadly overlooked, we just had to point it out. In a tour de force performance, Ed Harris plays the composer who needs help transcribing the notes of his Ninth Symphony before it is performed. To complete the task, he hires a young woman (Diane Kruger) who has hopes of becoming a composer as well. She becomes a student of the ailing master in the process.

Cameo Appearance: Friend, teacher and violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (Gabor Bohus).

Backstory: Anthony Hopkins was originally going to play Beethoven here.

The Critics Applaud?: Andrew O’Hehir, Salon:…Holland remains a big-canvas painter with a delicate touch, and even a made-up story about the creation of the Ninth Symphony, one of the two or three most important musical works in the Western tradition, is a powerful experience.