The late Glenn Gould was classical music’s Michael Jackson, a “gloved one” who understood the commercial value of eccentricity and whose personality often eclipsed his music. Because of this, he’s also one of the most closely chronicled performers of the 20th century, so it behooved Peter Raymont and Michelle Hozer to load biodoc “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould” with as much previously unseen footage as possible. While the pic is far from perfect, the helmers certainly deliver a must-see film for serious music fans that should make beautiful music at the arthouse.
From his 1955 debut at age 14, the Toronto-born prodigy was recognized as an Olympian talent, with an achingly precise keyboard technique and an enigmatic approach to Bach. With his fingerless gloves, overcoat, 13-inch-high piano bench and aversion to audiences, he also intuited early on the value of being a character — which Raymont and Hozer share with us at generous length, via footage of Gould’s flamboyant performance style and odd film clips of him wandering through woodlands, “candidly” fingering an imaginary keyboard, surrendering to reveries and basically acting it up for the camera. It’s all very transparent now, but at the time such proto-celebrity stuff was rare, particularly in the classical arena.
One of the anecdotes Raymont (“Shake Hands With the Devil”) and his longtime editor Hozer unearth dates to April, 1962: Under pan-and-scan stills, we hear Leonard Bernstein, who was conducting Gould and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, tell the audience, pre-concert, that while he respects Gould’s musicianship, he doesn’t agree with his radical approach to the first Brahms piano concerto, which they subsequently performed. It was an extraordinary disclaimer, but such was Gould’s ability to alienate even a social butterfly like Bernstein.
But Gould didn’t socialize with stars, and after 1964, he didn’t hang around with audiences: “I hate the audience,” he’s heard to say — not the individuals, but the mass, which he perceived as hostile. So he became a creature of the studio, where he made radio shows and created piano music via retakes and spliced tape.
For all the archival goodies the co-helmers trot out, it’s open to debate how much more “inner” Gould we get here. His retreat to the studio isn’t really measured against his personality, though it seems natural to draw conclusions about Gould’s control-freak persona and the unpredictability of live performance. “I wouldn’t have been happy as a 19th-century man,” Gould muses, meaning before recording technology, which was a kind of salvation for him.
What Gould would have done in a digital world might have been a juicy subject for speculation, but the filmmakers don’t go there. Likewise, his personal life is left undissected to an unsatisfying degree: Lots of screen time is devoted to Gould’s later-in-life romance with painter Cornelia Foss, and the fact that Foss and her children came to live with Gould in Toronto after she split from pianist husband Lukas. Cornelia Foss recollects that Gould had declared Lukas Foss the premiere living pianist when they first met. And then Gould wound up stealing away his favorite pianist’s wife. The episode certainly invites further examination.
Even some strictly armchair diagnoses would have been welcome regarding Gould’s paranoia, which increased with age, and perhaps the historic links between great art and insanity. Instead, Raymont and Holzer seem happy to declare Gould one of the great artistic geniuses of the 20th century and fill their movie with Gouldiana. Still, there’s no question Gould remains one of classical music’s more fascinating figures — and biggest sellers — nearly three decades after his death, and “Genius Within” certainly scratches an itch.Production values are fine, especially the quality of the older footage, although the few re-enactments seem unnecessary.