If Eugenio Mira's murderous musical thriller is not the single best film of 2014, then it could be a superlative year; if not amongst the ten best, then the cinema of 2014 may be so good it literally kills us.
2013 (them)/2014 (us)
Directed by Eugenio Mira
Written by Damien Chazelle
With our victims—Elijah Wood (Tom Selznick), Kerry Bishe (Emma Selznik), Don McManus (Norman Reisinger), Allen Leech (Wayne), and Tasmin Egerton (Ashley)—and our villains—Alex Winter (the Assistant) and John Cusack (apparently, "Clem")
Spoiler alert: high (I feel that it's more like moderate, but I am erring on the side of caution)
Pictured: the synopsis.
In Grand Piano, Elijah Wood plays a performing wunderkind whose career went astray. To an uninitiated observer, this could seem like a reflection; those who have seen Wood working in his Weird Period, however, know that this is far from the case, and that Wood has carved out his niche as one of the most enjoyable and exciting actors of our time.
This shouldn't be news! He has always been thus: Elijah Wood was putting on clinics in the darkness of his mother's womb, evincing emotions that no fetus had ever shown before. Lately, he's more often been the furiously psychotic villain; see Sin City, Maniac or Red Vs. Blue. The really insane thing about this is that Kevin, Frank, and the Meta are still all radically different. There is no such thing as the stock Elijah Wood Murderer, and I look forward to many more unique Elijah Wood Murderers to come.
But I've never been more delighted by Wood than here—where he plays, of all things, the hero.
Maybe not the conventional man of action, mind you.
Grand Piano is Wood's showcase; it demands he carry almost every ounce of a surprisingly emotionally heavy script; and, with an amazing verisimilitude, he makes it absolutely clear that, although hand doubles are sparingly used for close-ups, the man himself took a few in utero piano lessons as well.
Wood is Tom Selznik, a celebrity concert pianist of inimitable talent, whose meteoric rise to the top of his rarefied profession was interrupted five years ago by his own near-fatal weakness—an attack of the nerves that struck him down as he attempted and failed to play the unplayable, "La Cinquette," an experimental piece written by his teacher and mentor, the eccentric genius that once was Patrick Godereaux. The old master's recent death is presently the motivation for a tribute concert organized in large part by Tom's wife, the Hollywood starlet, Emma Selznik. This is his stage, now set for his return from exile. Playing on Godereaux's personal grand piano, brought in special for the show, this concert represents Tom's last chance to take back the career that was rightfully his.
But!: in his sheet music, he finds the message written in boldest red that if he misses even a single note tonight, his life is forfeit. Given an earphone, his nemesis lets him know that if he seeks aid, he'll kill Emma, too, punctuating his threat with a bullet hole in the floor.
Finally, for his secret admirer's delectation, he will play "La Cinquette" again—and this time, to perfection. So, more is the pity, and more is the suspense, that Tom, believing its inclusion in his portfolio to be a childish joke, consigned the only copy of "La Cinquette" in the house to the trash...
Absolutely inevitably, Grand Piano does require an acceptance of a number of implausibilities. Firstly, and most blatantly, that the star of a concert could rush on and offstage without ending the performance. Given Tom's checkered past, it seemed natural enough the orchestra may just blithely go on playing and hope for the best (and, hell, maybe he has the runs). In any event, there's certainly no percentage in halting the show. We can afford to give Piano its premise, can't we?
One may further question why no one else seems to see the giant red laser dot darting around all over Tom's hands and piano keys. One may also shut their complaining face. It's far away, that's why. And for other actions that go unnoticed, it's because Tom is very fast. So relax. Let it work, and it works beautifully; kibitz it, and you threaten to shrivel this delicate flower with your overcritical halitosis. (It goes without saying that applying anything like math to reckon the angles the sniper is using is hardly a good use of one's limited time on this Earth.)
And a real stickler may be upset that the better part of valor is leaving your phone's ringer on "insanely fucking loud" during a classical concert. But it turns out the call really was important!
Still, raising a skeptical eyebrow toward the true nature of the evil plot is, I will grant, not an entirely illegitimate exercise.
"If you're going to play music this dense, you're going to hit a wrong note," says Tom Selznick's colleague and friend, conductor Norman Reisinger. "And they won't know. They never do." Grand Piano hits one and only one wrong note: its villain's master plan is revealed, ultimately, to be a cash grab—an artful and thrilling heist that his own assistant loudly complains is too convoluted to work, and which the villain himself confesses he has undertaken as much for his own place in history as the money itself. (In a delightful touch, and a shockingly playful one, screenwriter Damien Chazelle even has his villain conceive of no fewer than two alternative plans, each far superior and more logical, by way of off-the-cuff sarcasm.) But, whether he gilded his lily or not, the mastermind of Grand Piano remains, as Tom describes him, a petty thief.
It's been a long time since Die Hard, and the revelation that a seemingly emotionally-driven madman is just one more rational economic actor amongst many no longer holds any power whatsoever to surprise. In fact, it tends to do quite the opposite. And thus it is a unwelcome intrusion of banality into Grand Piano's manic opera; it serves, however marginally, to lower the stakes of what heretofore had been a transcendent example of art criticism genuinely changing the world for the better—albeit, of course, at the point of a gun.
If you value your life at all, you will admit that you like The Counselor.
But while I did know the note wasn't right even in the midst of hearing it, in the end I also could not very much care, and so, with its elegant and wholly redeeming denouement, Grand Piano's thesis is proven after all. In the very same conversation Norman also references Citizen Kane; and I can say without hesitation that Grand Piano does not violate any rule about avoiding mentioning better movies in your own.
I have mentioned Elijah Wood's performance is uncannily physically convincing. However, I don't wish to give the wrong idea: there is so much more to Wood's effort here than simply fingerbanging ivory; it is a complete work of character creation, of self-loathing and crybaby tendencies matched with not just discipline and heart, but no less than the justified arrogance that ultimately defines this man. In some ways, he's not even likeable: when he throws "La Cinquette" to the floor he does so in the manner of a total asshole, not bothering to pick it up even as a harried custodian shakes his head most disapprovingly. (But fret not, fellow defenders of labor! Tom gets what's coming to him for this transgression, setting up one of the most amazing scenes of this already-amazing film.)
Yes, he has his flaws, but with Wood providing Tom his brittle emotional center, we cannot help but sympathize: we need not just to see him survive, but surpass. Even without the man in the private box pointing a sniper rifle at his head, Grand Piano still could have been a reasonably compelling portrait of the tortured artist.
This is testament to exquisite acting and scripting, but in larger part than either (or, with apologies to Wood, both combined), this victory of character rests upon the music. For the music around which this film is so majestically built is, well, actually great.
I admit readily that I am singularly unqualified to judge classical music on anything but the most superficial merits, but, first, I knows what I likes, and I likes this.
Second, composer Victor Reyes and director Eugenio Mira have achieved a triumph of cinematic scoring by creating purely diagetic music that is not just beautiful in its own right, and that not only feels quite plausibly like a three-movement concerto, and that not only seems, at least with "La Cinquette," like it might be extraordinarily difficult to play, but most importantly of all, serves each and every shot with near-perfect emotional resonance and dramatic timing. (And the encore that underscores the climax? Even cooler.)
"...and this bird will never chaaaay-ange, AHHHHH no, this bird will never chay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay..."
Piano has already been pigeonholed as Hitchcock by way of De Palma—a pastiche—and while entirely accurate, this is emphatically no negative. In fact, without the credits or outside information, it would be easy to believe that De Palma had risen from the grave which he decided to call Passion, returning to cap his long career with a return to brilliance instead. It's all very unfair to the immense craft Eugenio Mira has invested into his first English-language effort, for Piano is still more than the sum of its influences. Mira has played the unplayable himself: a celebration of the two great directors' legacies that never once feels plagiarized or forced or distracting. Piano emerges equal to all but the very best efforts of either; it remains inferior only to Rope and to Carrie, respectively.
"Wait, what does Citizen Kane have to do with anything?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I guess we're all into Vertigo now."
Grand Piano's plot's very reason for being is to demonstrate that a feature length version of the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much '56 is both possible and infinitely desirable; it does so conclusively. The purpose of film, as it was given life, seems precisely to proclaim Mira's unconditional love for De Palma's whole body of work, and it is with bittersweet satisfaction that I can tell you that it shows that the old master's technique and rarely-matched verve will survive what one recognizes is his career's twilight.
So: behold! The long, conversational tracking shot through the concert hall backstage that introduces not one but two of our key characters! The slow zoom as Tom sits at his mentor's grand piano to begin! The swooping crane shots that turn over the orchestra before swinging between the very lid and the guts of the piano, before resting its gaze on Tom playing as his life does depend upon it! The eye-searingly beautiful red and green color palette of the world's most impressively cinematic concert hall, either the work of a consummate production designer or a place I desperately need to visit! The fun with real audio as the camera backs off of Tom, toward his tormenter, and his tinny electronically reproduced voice shifts to Cusack's natural dulcet tones! The camera canting like a plane about to crash! The brazenly impossible subjective shot of the hall spinning around Tom as he plays, while red lights blare him practically out of existence!
I don't even think this is a De Palmaism, but the best match cut since John Carter!
And the last but certainly not the least subtle element of this grand homage: SPLIT! SCREEN! (Alas, all too briefly!) You may remember split screen from Sisters, Carrie, Snake Eyes, and the only part of Passion that was not outrageously terrible.
This is a beautiful film; one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. As far as I can determine, it is the most flashily (and hence the best!) shot since Gravity; which is not, in any case, at all a fair comparison for any picture to have to live up to, though Piano comes as close as any ordinary movie is likely.
I'd like to spend just a moment on Cusack. The veteran's vocal performance is a triumphant combination of confidence, sarcasm, genuine madness, and, finally—a surprising addition—exhausted irritation. We see only as much of him as we need to, and no more, but when we finally do, there is a look on his face that most actors would have neither the talent nor the understanding of the character to give him: it is exasperation, matched with barely suppressed fury, all directed at his puppet's refusal to obey its strings. The reaction is fully human, yet still intimidating for that humanity—bigger for being smaller. It's a great little performance. (Naturally, it's a true pleasure to see the once and future Bill S. Preston, Esq., back in action again too, as Cusack's semi-subordinate henchman.)
So, where can you see Grand Piano? Where wonderful, small movies can often be found: the Internet!
While most convenient, it also, in a way, makes me sad. (Although, obviously, far less sad than the other recent Grand, that is Budapest Hotel, being available to me not at all, due to Fox Searchlight being, essentially, no better than Nazis.) Why does it make me sad? Because watchable mediocrities like Non-stop and barely-movies-at-all like Getaway get 2000+ theater releases, when Grand Piano gets... two. Yes, our society is cruel and stupid; but by existing at all, Grand Piano convinces me that there is still such a thing in this world as joy. From no other feeling could such a film possibly arise.