Music films always come down to the type of music. If its modern pop music the film is often either about a young woman trying to find herself. (Rock of Ages) Rock music and its a film about a man child rocker and his attempts to enter the real world and grow up.(see The Rocker and Almost Famous) Classical music on the other hand is a mixed bag with films like The Concert finding comedy through it. However lately a strange new sub-category has emerged with films like Quartet and A Late Quartet using classical music to relate to the understandable fear of aging and the uncontrollable nature of our lives, even if we try as hard as humanly possible. These two films are both wonderful, they are full of rich characters (even if in the latter they tend to act in the most irrational ways) and complex emotions but they also share similar themes and were released in the same year begging the question, why now, why not earlier?
While the why is hard to answer, the why not earlier is rather simple as the sucess of The Great Exotic Marigold Hotel must have had something to do with it, the idea that grown ups might actually want to attend a film with people their age in it is not completely ridiculous, in fact its rather logical. It’s just odd that it took people years to realize something this obvious, it actually makes movie producers and creators look rather stupid. Surely there must be another reason but with the influx of the upcoming elderly raunch comedy Last Vegas, a film that certainly wouldn’t have been made without the huge box office totals brought in by both Marigold and oddly enough The Hangover trilogy, it seems that no, Hollywood really did cock this one up.
That being said we should all rejoice as all the films I have mentioned, barring The Hangovers and Rock of Ages are exceptionally good with Quartet being a moving look at elderly life and A Late Quartet looking at the ever changing nature of life yet the constant undeniable force of music. In fact the two films have one thing in common, an undeniable love of classical music, an art form rarely taken seriously by society today thanks to the popularity and easy access to modern popular music. This article will look at the ways these two films use music to discuss each films themes but also the way the music makes the movies better without realising it. Because as these films point out so wonderfully, without music life would be so unforgivably dull.
Written by Ronald Harwood and Directed by Dustin Hoffman
While ultimately designed as a feel good film and not a rigid drama, Quartet uses music as a form of expression in a much different way to A Late Quartet. It uses music to colour the lives of its characters, not to define them. Each and every one of the characters is a famed musician, a relic of a world that has moved past the classics but still holds onto them with a loose grip. The nursing home they all live in resembles the real world in much the same way, the characters grip to their past lives despite their inside knowledge that those times of glory and musical triumph are behind them. When the songs begin to play you don’t think about how that piece of music relates to these characters, you wonder why it should be important to you, how these characters with their charms and flaws are like us, how their lives intersect ours despite their vastly different paths. Personally through the music I related to Tom Courtenay’s Reg, the shy yet devoted teacher, a man who sees life in the music but is perfectly happy when he doesn’t hear it. He has grown docile with age but still holds onto his past heartache. By the films conclusion he has found peace with his past, a part of himself he thought he had reconciled and while it has a lot to do with the appearance of Maggie Smith’s Jean it also was brought about by the music and the way it set the tone for his life and his experiences. That’s the most important thing to remember about Quartet, it’s that these characters are driven by their passions but not controlled by them, the music adds to their lives, it doesn’t control it and personally I think it makes all the difference.
A Late Quartet (2013)
Written by Seth Grossman and Aaron Zilberman, Directed by Aaron Zilberman
Unlike Quartet, this feature, a much more serious drama about the obsession music can become is a rigid piece of film making that devotes its attention to the beauty of music while also showing that it has an incredibly caustic impact on people and their lives. Ultimately I don’t believe this, music is important to people not for the reasons we love it but because silence is, among other things, boring. While it wraps itself up in pretending to be about love and the interchangeable feelings felt over the course of a lengthy relationship and the lust that emerges when these changes occur, it’s actually a film about losing yourself to something other than yourself, in this case the classics of Beethoven and the challenge that comes with it. The strange thing about A Late Quartet is that its characters lack the strength of their own convictions, they manipulate, they judge and they do horrible things all in the sake of their art, an art that has contorted their own emotions to the point where you might not even recognise them as people. In fact the whole point of the film is to emphasise the beauty of classical music but all it really seems to do is show that anyone can be corrupted by the thing they love the most. By trying to emphasise the beauty and wonderful creations found in the classics it makes the music repulsive and the characters who love it unpleasant. That’s not to say the movie is bad, its a complex film with many layers and some beautiful performances but it does show the dark side of music. The lives of Peter (Christopher Walken), Daniel (Mark Ivanir), Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Juliette (Catherine Keener) are totally consumed by music, not enhanced by it and it makes the movies triumphant finish almost depressing as you realize these characters aren’t going to change, they are going to be obsessed until they die and the music they love so much will have made their lives pointless.
Music is Life? Not Necessarily
The two films are well written with great performances and some talented directors at the helm even though Quartet is Hoffman’s debut film, an impressive feat for the 75 year old, but they both have very different effects with one lifting you up to life’s possibilities (at least for the credits) and the other making you realize the mistakes you could make along the way. Both messages are important and both films are enjoyable but to say that music can be boiled down to these two positions is pointless. The point of this little essay (or rant, depends how you see it) is to say that music is not only a quintessential part of film but life and by understanding how music is seen through the eyes of directors and the films they make is key to understanding why we hold it in such high regard. If anything these two films together teach us to find a middle ground with music, to love it but never obsess over it. Then again it also says the same thing about your profession, your relationships and the things in your life you hold most dear, let them inform your decisions, not make them for you.