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.
- Review Project: Damien Chazelle Retrospective