The latest near-blasphemous use of Beethoven’s magnificent oeuvre (cross-references below) comes in a film where love of his craft is central to the storytelling. Sadly, both the choice of repertoire and the “improvements” (a ludicrous cut in the “Eroica’s” mighty first movement; rape and pillage wrought on the master’s work by Benjamin Wallfisch’s arrangements) made to the timeless scores in order to suit the scenes rob Joe Wright’s vision and intent of any manner of artistic integrity.
Worse, the actual cello central to the narrative (donated by a well-meaning reader of the L.A. Times’ series on a Julliard-level musician living on the streets of Lies Always) must have been factory tuned: the long neglected instrument’s strings are not even tested for pitch prior to the first draw of the bow.
The bow behind the scenes is Ben Hong who does a fine job providing the actual cello tracks and rudimentary technique to Jamie Foxx as the homeless musician, Nathanial Ayers, and Tom Hollander as the bible-thumping principal cellist, Graham Claydon, of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The latter gets saddled with such very unmusical lines (screenwriter Susannah Grant has fashioned Steve Lopez’s book—The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music and related columns with a fine sense of drama but severely-lacking appreciation of our most universal art) as “Beethoven would not have existed without J.S. Bach” and fanciful situations (coerced into a public solo recital, Ayers bails before the First Cello Suite—how was the dress rehearsal?).
As to the symphonies, the choice of No. 3 in E-flat Major makes some sense (the transition from highway underpass to concert hall rehearsal is one of the finest moments in the film, only to be dashed by the conductor’s caustic jibe to the suddenly first-desk player) and closing the production down with the Ninth’s sublime Adagio molto e cantabile (no edits here, just fade to black well ahead of the double bar: Who would stay after the credits just to hear how this movement turns out?) are well intended but fail on two counts: the performances by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the glorious Los Angeles Philharmonic are decidedly bloodless and aurally/visually paint Ayers as a journeyman section player rather than gifted soloist. Why not the cello sonatas, Triple Concerto or any of the string quartets?
More’s the pity as both Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. (playing the reporter with a conscience) have the collective acting abilities to draw a deserved standing ovation, but the material isn’t up to their calibre.
Originally dedicated to Napoléon, the Third Symphony’s final inscription (“to the memory of a great man”) makes the most compelling, if unintended, link between this true tale of art conquering life’s darkest calamities and the romantic notions of what the twenty-first century’s big screen, apparently, demands. JWR