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Composers in the Movies

Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography

Foreword by Simon Callow
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Composers in the Movies
    Book Description:

    Amadeus. . .Yankee Doodle Dandy. . .Swanee River. . .Rhapsody in Blue. Even before movies had sound, filmmakers dramatized the lives of composers. Movie biographies-or biopics-have depicted composers as diverse as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George M. Cohan, Stephen Foster, and George Gershwin. In this enticing book, the first devoted entirely to such films, John C. Tibbetts surveys different styles and periods from the Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s to the international cinema of today, exploring the role that film biographies play in our understanding of history and culture.Tibbetts delves into such questions as: How historically accurate are composer biopics? How and why have inaccuracies and distortions been perpetrated? What strategies have been used to represent visually the creative process? The book examines the films in several contexts and considers their role in commodifying and popularizing music. Extensive archival research, dozens of illustrations, and numerous interviews make this an appealing book for film and music enthusiasts at all levels.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12803-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)

    Biographical dramatization is a tricky business. I’ve been involved in it for most of my career, playing the Great Dead in a surprising number of plays, documentaries, and films; I’ve even written two spectacularly bad biographical plays myself. Quite often the Great Dead in question have been artists of one sort or another; twice I have played composers (three times, if you count Emanuel Schikaneder in the film version ofAmadeus,who—as well as being the first Viennese Hamlet, an original clown, and an impresario of genius—was a prolific songwriter). For me this has been a perfectly logical...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: The Lyre of Light
    (pp. 1-17)

    Dramatizations in the movies of historical events and famous people possess a power, a vitality, and an enduring image quite distinct from the history books. Who can forget Laurence Olivier as Richard III, Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln, George C. Scott as General Patton, and—especially relevant to this book—Tom Hulce as the naive and foolishly giggling composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the popularAmadeus(1984)? Professional historians may chronicle their subjects with greater detail, precision, and accuracy, but they can scarcely hope to convey their portraits with a comparable degree of graphic, personal, and emotional vividness. Mark C....

  6. 1 The Classical Style: Composers in the Studio Era
    (pp. 18-80)

    The canon of classical composers already discussed in the Introduction—Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Richard Wagner, and others—first reached American and British screens at the precise time that the studio system in Hollywood and England was at its peak, and when the popularity of movies was at its height. Many film historians refer to this time, roughly 1930–1960, as the “classical period” of the studio system. By no means coincidentally, it also was the “golden age” of the composer biopic, both classical and popular (the popular songwriter biopics are...

  7. 2 A Song Remembered: Frédéric Chopin Goes to War
    (pp. 81-101)

    A Song to Rememberis destined to rank with the greatest attractions since motion pictures began,” proclaimed the advance publicity from Columbia Pictures—“seven years in the making . . . , seven years of never-ending effort to bring you a glorious new landmark in motion picture achievement. It means not only prestige but money in the box-office till.” Viewers were assured, “As long as lovers love and as long as dreamers dream, their story will be remembered.”¹

    Aside from the expected Hollywood publicity hype, however, there were some grains of truth in the prophecy.A Song to Remember,a...

  8. 3 The New Tin Pan Alley: Hollywood Looks at American Popular Songwriters
    (pp. 102-154)

    When George M. Cohan got an advance peek at the Warner Bros. movie about his life,Yankee Doodle Dandy(1942), he exclaimed, “My God, what an act to follow!” As if daunted by the very notion, he died two months later, on 29 May 1942. His astonishment at what Hollywood had wrought was disingenuous. He had conspired with the filmmakers to unleash upon the viewing public not his life, but the life that could have been, or should have been—the kind of life, as his daughter Georgette declared, “Daddy would like to have lived!”¹

    Yankee Doodle Dandyis but...

  9. 4 “Just an Innocent Bystander”: The Composer Films of Ken Russell
    (pp. 155-216)

    The telecast on 22 November 2002 on London Weekend Television of Ken Russell’sElgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicyclebrings full circle the career of a filmmaker who has gained fame and notoriety for his many biographical dramatizations of composers.¹ His breakthroughElgarof forty years before, broadcast on BBC’sMonitortelevision program, had inaugurated a unique sensibility in the conception and crafting of biography, art, and ideas on film—an imaginative interplay of fact and fantasy that continues to influence filmmakers today. Throughout his long career Russell’s antic imagination, canny exploitation of music, dazzling showmanship, and controversial...

  10. 5 “A Long, Dark Coda into the Night”: The Composer Films of Tony Palmer
    (pp. 217-262)

    “I am fascinated by the relationship between composers and the world they live in,” says British filmmaker Tony Palmer. “It doesn’t matter what kind of music they write—serious or pop. They are remarkable people who struggle to create something people are interested in.”¹ With the exception of his friend and former colleague Ken Russell, no filmmaker on the planet has devoted so much of his or her career to this troublesome genre of biographical film—and aroused more praise and blame in the process. Certainly no filmmaker has been less interested in appeasing a public expecting the standard sophomoric...

  11. 6 Revisionist Portraits: A Medley of Recent Composer Biopics
    (pp. 263-296)

    In James Lapine’sImpromptu(1991) a group of artists—including the composers Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin, the painter Eugène Delacroix, and the writers George Sand and Alfred de Musset—arrive at the country estate of the Duke and Duchess d’Antan. Disdaining their hosts as coarsegrained nouveaux riches, Liszt haughtily confides to Chopin, “They’re probably famished for culture and determined to import it at any cost.” Meanwhile, the country squire privately declares to his enraptured wife that their famous guests are nothing but “a gang of parasites” and “perfumed prancers.”

    Battle lines are drawn. Ensuing events result in a tangle...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 297-346)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 347-354)
  14. Index
    (pp. 355-365)