Late Soviet artist Aram Khachaturian, too often remembered just for his pulsating “Saber Dance,” had a life that mirrored the best and worst of the Soviet Union itself. Producer-director Peter Rosen’s film portrait, “Khachaturian,” restores its subject to stature that will force a re-evaluation of his place in 20th century music. Exquisitely researched and crafted and rounded out with a lustily performed soundtrack, docu is a model of its kind, and best seen during its slated brief bigscreen run in select U.S. cities (starting Nov. 7) before it becomes an evergreen vid for the permanent library.
Up until now, perhaps the best filmed depiction of the grueling existence of the USSR’s music giants during the Stalinist era was Tony Palmer’s powerful 1988 drama, “Testimony,” starring Ben Kingsley as Khachaturian’s most famous peer, Dmitri Shostakovich. New docu retains “Testimony’s” vivid sense of what extraordinary art these men were able to create under the most hostile conditions. Docu combines this with a rich array of recollections of the period’s survivors and archival footage of performances and Khachaturian himself, obsessively recorded by the Soviets like the superstar that he was.
Viewer may need a few minutes to adjust to Rosen’s and writer Bill Van Horn’s conception: Filmmakers have the composer’s narrating voice (spoken by Eric Bogosian and culled from letters, writing, diaries and other sources) speaking in an otherworldly first-person over images of his own funeral.
This voice persists, but pic reverts to a more traditional mode interlacing interviews and research into a chronological biography. Pic traces Khachaturian’s roots in Armenian culture, his great attachment to the folk music adored by his mother and his insistence (against parental wishes) to study music.
Van Horn’s script asserts that without the Russian Revolution of 1917, Khachaturian would likely never have traveled to Moscow, where he mixed with the cultural vanguard and found himself at the lead of what was then called “the new Soviet man.” But as historian and docu’s script consultant Solomon Volkov notes on camera, Khachaturian had to suppress his Armenian music sensibilities while foregrounding modernist ones. However, Stalin then disallowed the modern for “socialist realism.”
Film’s intensely charged mid-section describes the post-WWII showdown during a meeting of the Composers Union when the country’s leading voices — Khachaturian, Shostakovich and Prokofiev — were denounced by Stalin crony Tikhon Khrennikov as “anti-people.” (Like seemingly every other event in Soviet history, this one was filmed, and can be seen here.)
Rosen was remarkably able to get an aging Khrennikov to speak to his camera, visibly uncomfortable while still trying to justify his actions. Cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich opines that Khachaturian was arguably the hardest hit of the three giants by the denunciations and subsequent imposed exile in Armenia–a journey he then turned to his artistic advantage.
Filmed recordings of prime performances of such major works as the “Gayaneh” ballet suite (best known for the “Saber Dance” section and the adagio section used in “2001: A Space Odyssey”) and, most dramatically, the ballet “Spartacus” (starring the astonishing Vladimir Vasiliev) suggest the variegated ways in which Khachaturian blended his Armenian heritage with Russian dance and tragedy. Latter work is the composer’s great triumph, premiered after Stalin’s death and the ultimate statement from a composer breaking out of a period of creative silence.
Superbly paced and with a fluid interplay of old and new footage, docu does full justice to the music with an outstanding recording of conductor Loris Tjeknavorian’s Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra in top form.