The Documentary to End All Documentaries
teva_man | United States | 05/26/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 150 minute documentary on Stravinsky's life is, by far, the best one I have ever seen done on any composer. Produced in 1980-81, in time for Stravinsky's centennial in 1982, prolific English filmmaker Tony Palmer really, really outdid himself. There is nary a dull moment in the entire thing; apparently Palmer was asked to do this film by Mme. Vera Stravinsky and much material that appears was made available by herself and also Robert Craft.
It seems very fortuitous, in retrospect, that Palmer and his staff were able to interview many soon-to-pass figures from the artistic world of the yesteryear - Serge Lifar, Boris Kochno (Diaghilev's secretary), 3 of Stravinsky's four children, his second wife, George Balanchine, concert promoter Jean Wiener, Kyra Nijinsky (daughter of famed Vaslav Nijinsky, choreographer of "Le Sacre"), Marie Rambert (who danced in the premiere of "Le Sacre"), Georges Auric, and many others. Stravinsky had a difficult, but extremely full and rewarding life. Naturally, not everything could be covered in depth in a short span of 2-3 hours, but Palmer hits all the high points, and wonderfully well. The best parts of the film are Stravinsky's narrations - I'm not sure when these were done, but they are integrated well into the film. Also great are close-ups of many old archive photos and documents (including parts of Stravinsky's scores) - a lesser director than Palmer would have glossed over many of these fine things. For what it's worth, my favorite parts are (1) the beginning of the development of the film, which segues from the present-day Russian fair, showing where Stravinsky drew his first ideas for composition, into an orchestral performance of "Petroushka"; and (2) the end of the first half - where Palmer covers the deaths of Stravinsky's eldest daughter, and wife - sad of course, but the background music is the Aria II and Capriccio from the Violin Concerto (1931) as the accompaniment to the narrative. The (then young) Kyung-Wha Chung, arguably its best interpreter, submits a heartwrenching oration of the Concerto, and there are a few very nice shots of Chung playing.
The latter portion of the film is even more informative - while the first half largely focuses on his early years, "Le Sacre", "Petroushka", Diaghilev, and "The Firebird", and also "Les Noces" (one of Stravinsky's hallmarks but rarely performed), which receive superlative performances. The second half looks at Stravinsky's life and work after moving to Hollywood around 1940. The highlight of the second half is coverage of his recordings for CBS Masterworks and a couple of his commissions ("The Circus Polka", and the arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner", for which he was arrested and jailed) are covered. The sequence on Stravinsky in Hollywood was done quite well - and oddly, nearly 30 years later, much of the footage Palmer shot looks the same, particularly the street signs! If I had to criticize this picture in any way - and it would be difficult to do so - I would have to say that certain segments go on just a bit too long. There are some fine performances by about a dozen different ensembles throughout the course of the film, but some of them (like "Les Noces") go on for many minutes at a time (sometimes with various photographs and location shots simultaneously.) The final part, covering Stravinsky's death, showing the very aged Madame Vera Stravinsky, is another example. Stravinsky's principal collaborator, Robert Craft, certainly had a lot to add, but some of the segments with him are jusy creepy (particularly the one where he's in the room where Stravinsky expired.) Apparently Craft was responsible for swaying Stravinsky into some rather objectionable musical territory in his later years, but of course, this isn't covered. But these small issues aren't at all detrimental.
The conclusion of the film is absolutely miraculous - watching the aged Stravinsky - physically frail but still mentally perfect - conduct the Berceuse and Finale from "The Firebird" (with the audio narration once again superimposed) - is spellbinding. As soon as the final B-major chord comes, the applause is instant - and Palmer closes the film with a side shot of the man momentarily frozen in space and time. I am not an overly emotional person, but every time I see this, something just hits me. To say that I recommend this film highly is a massive understatement. Bravo, Tony Palmer - I think you just about killed the possibility of anyone else ever making a better documentary.
A moving autobiographical portrait of Stravinsky
Mike Birman | Brooklyn, New York USA | 05/29/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"There has never been a time when Stravinsky's music was not important to me. The very first Classical recordings that I can recall purchasing decades ago were an LP set of Stravinsky conducting his epochal first three ballets (purchased along with the seminal DGG recording of Karlheinz Stockhausen's electronic masterpiece, Gesang der Junglinge). My ears were first attracted to vertical orchestral color and the distinctive differences in tone of the various musical instruments. In the history of music there have been few masters of instrumental color (as well as the temporal aspects of the orchestra) as creative and forceful as Igor Stravinsky. He was the most influential composer of the 20th Century. This marvelous 1982 film by British director Tony Palmer is essentially a biography of Stravinsky in celebration of his centennial, and it features the composer reading from his autobiography with a film accompaniment. Much of the film is rare, taken in Russia during the heyday of the Soviet Union. As counterpoint to Stravinky's music, it is perfect. Certainly, no one composed music that was more purely Russian, more rooted in the soil and beliefs of its people.
Fascinating excerpts include the kinetic and propulsive original choreography for Petrouchka by Mikhail Fokine and the profoundly primal and deeply moving original orchestration for Les Noces. We hear multiple cimbalons and drums, making an already Russian work sound even more authentic, rather than the more generic sounding four percussive pianos Stravinsky was later forced to substitute as a result of wartime privations. Les Noces features the original ballet choreography by Bronislava Nijinska and the excerpt is beautifully danced. The Firebird is also presented in its original ballet choreography by Fokine. There are many musical performances excerpted from throughout Stravinsky's long life, providing the viewer with a real sense of the composer's unique accomplishments in such a multitude of disparate musical genres. But always there was ballet. The segments with George Balanchine and Robert Craft are probably the most fascinating for the information they convey about Stravinsky's work habits. This is a wonderful, wide-ranging movie that covers a great deal of ground in its 166 minutes. The film and sound quality are serviceable, at best. Much of the film is archival in nature and even though the sound is represented as Dolby 2.0, it is often a fairly distant mono. Nevertheless, whatever shortcomings this disc may possess, they are more than made up for by the irreplaceable nature of the material. If you are a fan of Stravinsky, this film is a must. Most strongly recommended.