Grand Piano (2013)

I’ve noted multiple times throughout this retrospective that Damien Chazelle likes to trace the challenges of musicians and creatives in his movies, requiring that they sacrifice some of themselves to achieve fulfillment. It occurs to me that this is an understatement: Chazelle likes his characters to suffer for their art. The harsher the gauntlet, the sweeter the actualization.

Grand Piano, a film written by Chazelle and directed by Eugenio Mira, takes that to an extreme. Classical pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) performs a piece with a literal gun to his head, an assassin (John Cusack) jotting threats onto his sheet music and reading them into an earpiece. If Selznick plays a single wrong note, the assassin will kill Selznick and his lovely wife in the audience, actress Emma (Kerry Bishe).

The premise of the film is ridiculous nonsense, but the type of nonsense that is deeply engaging. It is just the right amount of a terrific hook to make up a feature length film: Despite the slow, exposition-heavy opening, it barely cracks 90 minutes.

We meet Selznick during a phone call on his way to the performance. We learn (with some heavy-handed “yes, tell me your backstory again” dialogue) that he is a prodigy who trained under a great master named Patrick Godureaux, who recently died. We also learn that Selznick suffers from terrible stage fright and is about to perform for the first time in years; that he is the only living person with sufficient skill to play a legendary (fictional) piece entitled “La Cinquette”; and that he will be using Godureaux’s grand piano for the performance. I’m not sure there would have been a more efficient way to give us that background info than to dump it on us, but it gets the expository heavy-lifting out of the way so we can enjoy the promise of the presmise for the ensuing 75 minutes.

The rest of the film follows Selznick’s performance of the concerto, and it is rapturous filmmaking. For scenes at a time, it’s a one-man-show for Wood, who is excellent, though the supporting actors have plenty of fun things to do, too. In a very Chazelle-like bit of attention to detail, Wood seems to be actually playing the piano himself most of the time; fake instrument playing is one of my cinematic pet peeves. And it seems like Wood is impossibly emotionally diverted from his performance, too distracted to play with feeling, but this distraction ironically allows Wood to escape some of his stage fright let loose.

Mira captures the simultaneous white-hot gaze of the audience and the alienation of being alone on stage, and each wacky escalation of the assassination plot dovetails nicely the tension of a performance on the brink of either brilliant success or fiery failure.

In fact, that might be what I love most about Grand Piano: The metaphoric context of the thriller narrative device. It is a tense corker of a scenario that works at face value, but it also serves as a heightened literalization of the danger and stakes that a performer feels in front of the audience: A wrong note or botched phrase might not mean literal life-or-death to most performers, but perhaps figurative life-or-death. When musical performance is your identity, a botched concert is a devastating disintegration of one’s self. Resounding success might not unlock a literal treasure in real life, but it might indeed reveal something profound and elusive. The threatening voice in a performer’s ears might be their own inner-critic, but it can be a dangerous whisper nonetheless.

Mira does an excellent job with the material, all glitz and kinetic energy. It’s a bit showy without sacrificing the tension, like a Brian De Palma film. The action sequences are unremarkable from a physical choreography perspective, with basic grappling and chasing, but they work well enough, and pay off with a terrific (literal and figurative) crash towards the end of the film.

Maybe I’m biased because I watched this as part of a Chazelle retrospective, but the most interesting thing about the film is the writing. It is always on the verge of ludicrous (the number of times that Selznick runs off-then-back-on stage grows silly), but it’s always escalating and trying something new to tease out its premise. And the very final payoff of an unlocked treasure is satisfying from both a narrative perspective and a character development perspective, even if it’s just a MacGuffin. The real treasure is not a monetary reward but a flawless execution of the impossible final bars of “La Cinquette,” even on a pile of rubble.

Unlike Chazelle’s previous writing work before his Whiplash breakout, The Last Exorcism: Part II, Grand Piano feels distinctly like a Chazelle work, only heightened to nearly-surreal stakes and proportions. (Then again, while Whiplash has no hidden assassin, is it really any less violent or terrifying?) Like Chazelle’s other films, it is at its core a consideration of the creative process in all its glory and risks, and how easy it is to lose something of yourself in the process.

Grand Piano is a bit slight and small to be an all-time great, but it’s compelling for the duration. It is, overall, a delight: a (slightly silly) forgotten gem of a thriller and a sneak peek at the emerging joy of Chazelle’s storytelling.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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3 replies on “Grand Piano (2013)”

I’ve not forgotten it, it’s still my favorite Chazelle-related work, I think just because it’s so focused even in the midst of its silliness, though Mira channeling so much De Palma doesn’t hurt it one bit. I’ve been meaning to rewatch it since Babylon.

I am coming to think that the only reason I don’t give Babylon full marks is because I didn’t give La La Land full marks, though, so maybe I should just rewatch La La Land and give it full marks. We’ve discussed its deficiencies as a dance musical before–they’re no Kelly and Caron! this is still somehow a sin to me–but I obviously want to just go nuts with Chazelle. Dude must be the most consistently great new director of the last ten/fifteen years, right?

Robert Eggers comes to mind as being at a similar level, even though I feel like a naysayer on The Northman for simply being in “wow that’s good” territory instead of “holy f-ing f, best of the year” territory where many of my friends place it. I like Chazelle more anyways. There are a lot of Peele-heads out there, but I think both of us are a smidge more skeptical.

Man do I have to see Babylon. It’s almost out of theaters. It basically only ever showed at times that would interfere with kids’ bedtime or keep me up past midnight. (Then again with a 3 hour movie, that’s the majority of the day.)

I’m glad (and, given the kids, impressed) that you managed to! I’m not mystical about the theatrical experience, as you know, but Babylon probably benefited from it. (It’s kind of a pity anything came out alongside Avatar, because neither this nor PIB2 got a Dolby screening.)

Eggers is up there for me, though his movies are in a tonal register that Chazelle really only accessed for First Man, where the movies are pretty great but they’re not necessarily super-rewatchable good times. Like, I’ve owned The Lighthouse for like three years, dunno when I’m actually going to watch it again. How is The Northman somehow one’s most fun movie? If Makoto Shinkai counts as “last ten/fifteen years” (he kind of does), then he beats Chazelle, I suppose, but I can’t think of anyone else. I wish I did like Peele more, because I’m grudgingly glad that somebody besides Chris Nolan* is able to do original-IP blockbusters–I’m continually surprised the Shyamalan comparisons keep slipping off him like teflon.

*Like, man, I’m looking forward to it, but the idea that a Robert Oppenheimer biopic is going to be the event of the summer is so comically stupid and hubristic.

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