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Grand Piano: the key to virtuosity

“Play one wrong note and you die!” The recently-released feature film Grand Piano, directed by Eugenio Mira and starring Elijah Wood, is an artsy and rather convoluted thriller about classical music and murder. Wood plays a concert pianist plagued by an overwhelming case of stage fright; it doesn’t help that there’s a sniper in the audience threatening to assassinate both him and his glamorous wife if he misses a single note in the “unplayable” composition that has proven to be his undoing before. Looking past the silly plot, however, it’s revealing to see how this movie plays into a number of persistent popular culture tropes around Romantic pianism. It’s even possible to read the story as a parable about the pressures of a performing career in the world of classical music today.

First consider the grand piano itself as portrayed in the film’s evocative opening credits. The camera takes us deep into this menacing mechanical contraption of piano keys, metal strings, tuning pins, and tiny gears turning like clockwork while the accompanying music thuds, slithers, and slashes with ominous import. Wait, grand pianos don’t have tiny gears turning inside. This must be quite an unusual piano, as the first scene of the film clarifies.

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Grand Piano stars Elijah Wood as a concert pianist contending with both stage fright and a sniper in the audience. Image: Elijah Wood in Grand Piano, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures via Magnet Releasing.

We see moving guys in a creepy old mansion rolling this instrument out of storage while the thunder rumbles overhead on a blustery overcast day. There’s always been something mysterious about grand pianos, since the large black coffin-like case hides the mechanics inside from the listener’s view as the pianist plays on one side of it. There’s some kind of ghost in the machine of the Romantic pianist’s intriguing instrument.

There’s also the ghost of the pianist’s deceased mentor, Godureaux, the eccentric teacher who had composed that unplayable composition and designed that mysterious instrument. He stares out from large posters in the lobby looking like a cross between Rachmaninoff and Rasputin. “La Cinquette” is the title of his notoriously difficult and “terrifying” piece that has something especially problematic about its last four bars. Maybe the title refers to the fact that it is Godureaux’s op. 5, or that it requires “five little” fingers of each hand to play it to perfection. (The film’s closing credits scroll over an unexpected delight: the song “Ten Happy Little Fingers” from the 1953 film musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, written by Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. Displeasure over wrong notes begins quite early in the young pianist’s career.) Fortunately our hero-virtuoso is equipped with “the fastest, most agile fingers of any pianist alive,” indeed there are only “a few people who can play it, who can move their fingers that fast and spread them that wide.”

Fingers take on symbolic meanings around the male virtuoso pianist; these appendages have frequently been represented in popular culture as signifiers of a muscular technique and masculinity. “You need to ease up!” the sniper instructs our hero as he begins to play that challenging piece. “You’re going to tire out your fingers!” Indeed, this performance is framed as our hero’s opportunity not only to redeem his career, but his identity as well: “I’m offering you the chance to become your own man again.” Elijah Wood’s wide-eyed stare easily conveys the crisis of masculinity implied by the pianist’s uncertainty over his playing technique, while his body language conveys a nervousness and an impotence (see his scared-stiff kiss with his wife at intermission) that also reflect these familiar tropes.

Wood has spoken publicly about the off-screen technical challenges of making this film. At a discussion session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, he described his own skills on the instrument remembered from piano lessons when he was young, but also how he worked with pianist Mariam Nazarian in Los Angeles for three weeks to learn to make it look like he knew how to play; in Barcelona he worked with the hand double for this film (the credits list Toni Costa as hand double, and John Lenehan as the soundtrack recording pianist). Wood recalls practicing first on a real piano (“the sound helped me to know if I was on the right track”) and then filming to the recording on a dummy piano, which made it possible to act out his gestures without worrying if he were hitting all the correct notes. It was also useful for Wood to watch a video of the real pianist’s hands from the pianist’s point-of-view, then to imitate what he saw as he watched his own hands on the keyboard. Some critics have noted the impressive “hand-synching” in this film production (see Eric Snider’s write-up) and the actor’s learning curve with this playback technique (see Clark Collis’ interview). One of the movie’s selling points, in fact, is our persistent fascination with virtuoso technique (see Harleigh Foutch’s interview): “So the main thing I walked away from this movie thinking was how damn difficult this part must have been for you.”

Serious pianists and pianophiles will probably roll their eyes over the inane plot and the unrealistic playing scenes in this movie. Which concertos have tutti sections so long that the pianist can run off-stage so often for urgent business? Why wouldn’t the professional pianist play from memory? Perhaps there ought to be a law against texting while playing! The moral of the story might be about that perfectionism we’ve come to expect in this era of note-perfect recordings. “I want you to play the most flawless concert of your life,” the sniper exhorts the virtuoso. “Just consider me the voice in your head telling you that good is not good enough tonight.” The conductor tries to comfort the anxious pianist by saying about the audience, “If you’re going to play music this dense, you’re going to hit a wrong note, and they won’t know. They never do.” The critics-as-snipers might notice and mark down your technique, but the real crisis is the Romantic pianist’s musical reproducibility. As the conductor points out, “you make your living playing stuff other people write.” The concert virtuoso has become “a genius puppet,” as he puts it, a technological wonder that stays close enough to the notes of the score and just far enough from the great recordings to sound like a unique epitome of a time-honored tradition. “Do you really want to be the thousandth guy to give me a respectable Bach,” the conductor asks, “‘cause you can keep that. I don’t need respectable.” This pianist saves his life by literally changing the score.

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