Several rich strands are intertwined in “Beethoven’s Hair,” a musical mystery tour starring a hard-traveling forelock from Ludwig Van. Side trips into the Holocaust, kitschy Americana, and up-to-the-minute science give breadth to this tale of musical obsession, which never loses sight of the genius that generates the action. This most recent feature from Larry Weinstein (who received a retro tribute at Hot Docs, drawn from the Rhombus Media founder’s 20 pics in as many years) deserves noisy fanfare at music-minded fests and should perform well on the tube, in both full-length and hourlong versions.
Based on Russell Martin’s bestseller, wide-ranging docu — which combines colorful talking-head info with musical perfs, old theatrical footage and smartly staged reenactments — follows the fate of a rather large, gray-and-brown clump of hair, snipped from the maestro’s mane just after his 1827 death, by Ferdinand Hiller, who went on to become an important conductor and teacher in Vienna. Hiller passed on the follicular treasure — by now encased in a glass-and-wood cameo — to his son, Paul, a fine singer. That’s where things get murky, and where they are brought closer to our time. Because the Hillers were partially Jewish, Paul’s family had to flee the Nazis. (One of the singer’s sons became the successful French actor Marcel Hillaire.)
It’s not clear how Beethoven’s curl survived, except that it ended up on the wall of a Danish doctor who risked everything to help a group of German-Jewish refugees trying to find boat passage to Sweden. They were caught, but someone handed off the lock just in time. Not able to authenticate their memento, the doctor’s children put the cameo up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1994, when it was bought by two Arizonans, aged East Coaster Ira Brilliant and a roly-poly urologist called Che Guevara. Both come off as slightly cracked candidates for the Errol Morris treatment, but are viewed with increasing affection as tale goes on.
Guevara, in full surgical attire has the press attend his opening of the cameo, after which 20 strands are sent to high-tech scientists to find out what caused Ludwig’s painful and untimely death, not to mention his deafness and dementia — and maybe even some of his volatile temperament. Amazingly, they actually come up with an answer. In a seg absent from the short version, pic-makers subsequently shift to Australia, where the new info helps doctors diagnose a mine worker with similar symptoms of tinnitus, stomach pains, and rage-filled creativity.
Beethoven’s music, beautifully performed by musicians in the Czech Republic (where most of the nicely lit restagings took place) add to the drama, while deft sound design and editing add smooth textures across the board. Well-framed high-def pic also contains excerpts from wildly different portrayals of Beethoven over the years, including creaky old, sepia-toned pics with Harry Bauer, Ewald Balser and Fritz Kortner assaying the composer.