Category: Classical Music


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Perhaps more than any other genre of film, documentary film-making has the chance to enthrall me with stories that would otherwise seem boring or out of my personal wheelhouse of what I define as “interesting.” From Day 1 of this blog’s existence (literally since the first film I reviewed was the wonderful opera documentary In the Shadow of the Stars), documentaries have proven their resilience over and over again. I had dreaded putting in this particular film, 1999’s Speaking in Strings: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, for the two months I’d had it at home from Netflix because a documentary about the “bad girl” of classical concert violin seemed about as interesting as a trip to the orthodontist. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

At the film’s ceneter is gifted violin prodigy, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. An Italian immigrant to the U.S. at the age of eight, Nadja showed an exceptional talent for the violin at the young age. And after studying at Julliard, Nadja won a prestigious violin competition which skyrocketed her to the forefront of the classical violin community. Nadja’s visceral and explosive style garnered her as much praise as it did harsh criticism from the classical music establishment. Like many geniuses, Nadja’s personal life is as explosive and passionate as her music and Nadja’s battles her inner demons of depression, alienation, and loneliness to create her haunting and powerful music.

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The film is almost devastatingly intimate. The film’s non-linear structure threw me off for the first fifteen minutes or so of the film but once I got a feel for how the film-maker (Paola di Floria) was dizzying the film’s audience much the same way that Nadja dizzied her concert hall audiences with her theatrics, I got into the flow of the film. By the film’s end, you feel as if you got an invasively personal look in Nadja’s life. With her suicide attempt, her disaffection with the majority of the world around her, the wounds from being lashed by much of the stiffer parts of the classical musical community, and her abandonment issues, you seem to know Nadja so well and how she turns that pain into such amazing music.

The filmmaker’s decision to make a movie about Nadja must be commended. Because I know how on paper, this film doesn’t sound like much. But whether it’s the regular use of absolutely gorgeous violin music (often performed live by Nadja herself) or interesting personality that takes center stage, Speaking in Strings never bores. It is a constantly engaging meditation on both the price of genius as well as the factors that might create a genius in the first place. As far as individuals that have taken center stage in a documentary that I’ve reviewed for this blog, I’m not sure if one has commanded the screen as much as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.

Final Score: A-

I have a million little questions that I tend to ask people that are, in fact, secret tests of their character, taste, and intelligence. Who is your favorite character on Seinfeld (any answer is fine except for Kramer)? Who is your favorite Beatle (George or John)? The Red Sox or the Yankees (Boston)? Sony or Nintendo (Sony)? Well, one of my key ways to determine if you have good taste in children’s movie is your opinion of the original Fantasia film. It is easily one of my favorite films from my child hood and if someone doesn’t like Fantasia, I have to question their entire taste in cinema. Well, I finally got around (11 years later) to watching its long-awaited sequel Fantasia 2000 and while it isn’t quite as magical as the original, it’s still quite a gamble in high-brow children’s animation.

Fantasia 2000 follows the same basic set-up of the original film by setting different animated “stories” against a back drop of classical music (although this one also includes a wonderful jazz number). The film has many new vignettes as well as bringing back the classic “The Sorceror’s Apprentice”. However, unlike the original, where the conductor managed most of the transitions between scenes, this one brings in a large cast of familiar faces to add humor to the transition scenes, like Steve Martin, Penn and Teller, Angela Lansbury, and James Earl Jones.

There were two numbers in this film that I would put as being on par with some of the stuff from the original film, and while the others were good, they weren’t as great as the two I’m about to mention. Obviously, “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” isn’t counted in all this since it was in the original as well. They do an absolutely A+ stellar job with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” both through the perfect choice of song and then through the beautiful art deco animation and Great Depression era storytelling that follows. “Rhapsody in Blue” was my favorite part of the whole film. Also, much like “Night on Bald Mountain/ Ave Maria” from the first film, “Firebird Suite” beautifully mixes an earthly sense of wonder, beauty, and creation with  a sense of danger and death. “Night on Bald Mountain” gave me terrible nightmares as a child because of Chernobog and I could see “Firebird Suite” doing something similar for children today.

This film isn’t as groundbreaking or innovative as the original Fantasia was nearly 70 years ago, but that’s ok. It’s still the kind of big gamble that you’d think Disney had stopped making a long time ago. I would give the original Fantasia one of my very rare A+’s for it’s total score, and while I can’t do that for Fantasia 2000, that doesn’t stop it from still being a great fun, family film. When I get older and if I ever have any kids of my own, I know that the Fantasia films will play a very special role in their cinematic lives.

Final Score: A-

Few careers are as mesmerizing as that of the performer. Whether you’re an actor or singer (or in the film I’m about to discuss’s case, both), there is something positively entrancing about the thrill and rush and power that you can gain from standing in the center of the stage and having the whole world’s eyes on you. Perhaps that is why cinema has been obsessed with itself for so long. There are so many movies about stars and performers that this beautiful documentary about the people in the opera business who aren’t the stars but members of the chorus was so refreshing. You so rarely hear about the little man and his effect in the productions that we love. In the documentary In the Shadow of the Stars, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991, you get an up close look at the lives of several different members of the chorus of the San Francisco Opera House.

Perhaps, it’s because I have a (slight) background in musical theater, but I found this documentary to be absolutely enthralling. To see people rehearsing and performing and going about even the other aspects of their lives, it brought me right back into the world of performing arts and immersed me in that sense of adrenaline and awe. The film is a combination of interviews with the members of the chorus interspersed with actual performances of their plays and also dress/ regular rehearsals. You become quite attached to the different people who are being interviewed and their stories and hopes and dreams and attachments. It’s a really human picture. One scene struck me as being particularly beautiful. A husband and wife who met each other through the opera sing a song together in their home. And, in any other circumstance, this could have been kitsch and maudlin, but in this film and with this couple, it was so sweet and sincere. It was just deeply touching.

I left the film with an immense desire to go out and watch as many operas as I could. Gosh, the operas showed had such beautiful music and such ornate stage direction and design. It was lovely. I also had a desire to start acting again but that has passed again already fortunately. If you were in theater ever or you simply just love the performing arts but never performed yourself, you need to watch this film. It’s that plain and simple. The only people I wouldn’t recommend it to are uncultured types with no interest in the higher arts. You really owe it to yourself to check this out.

Final Score: A-