'The Curse of the Gothic Symphony'

An Antipodean "let's put on a show" ethos encounters an alleged hex on an unwieldy musical opus in the charming docu "The Curse of the Gothic Symphony."

An Antipodean “let’s put on a show” ethos encounters an alleged hex on an unwieldy musical opus in the charming docu “The Curse of the Gothic Symphony.” The titular spell on Havergal Brian’s composition is illustrated by beautifully rendered graphics — and less impressively via helmer Randall Wood’s technique — but the enjoyably eccentric musical professionals and enthusiasts interviewed here never seem to take the alleged “curse” seriously. Partly funded by coin from Australian Broadcasting Corp., docu will appeal to international pubcasters, while music-themed fests are likely to add this to their repertoires.

Written in the 1920s over an eight-year period by working-class English composer Brian, “The Gothic Symphony” has been performed less than half a dozen times in its entirety. Unable to comprehend the difficulty or the prohibitive expense any venue would face in organizing the two orchestras, four brass bands and five choirs required by the piece, the composer declared his work to be cursed.

Decades later in Brisbane, classical-music buff and radio broadcaster Gary Thorpe hoped to launch an Australian performance of the symphony — the first outside Blighty. His quest lasted 28 years. Docu begins in 2005, as producer Veronica Fury, seeing that Thorpe needs all the help he can get, starts assisting him with organization and fund-raising.

Once grouchy conductor John Curro and anxious choral master Alison Rogers are enlisted, it seems Thorpe’s dream may finally become a reality. Traveling to London, the docu observes as news of the impending production sends the oddball membership of the Havergal Brian Society all atwitter. Nevertheless, multiple variables, including the ongoing scarcity of coin, conspire to beset the proposed concert with obstacles.

As the clock ticks down to a 2010 performance, pic is punctuated by dialogue-free dramatizations of Brian’s struggles to write the symphony, archival footage of the deceased composer and excerpts from an interview with Brian’s now-octogenarian daughter, Olga Pringle. Although too good for the cutting-room floor, the tranquil interview with Pringle in her Scottish home is out of sync with the film’s harried tone; her dotty authenticity also reinforces an impression that many of the stilted previous interviews with Brisbane participants were semi-rehearsed.

Helmer Wood relies too much on distorted camera lenses as he tries to create a malevolent atmosphere where none exists. Exquisite graphics from animation house Fifty Fifty are heavy-handed in this context, but the way the animation suggests demonic forces is appropriately gothic. Mismatching threads eventually converge, and the stylistic clashes become part of the docu’s ramshackle homemovie charm. Pic finishes on a triumphant note, with the helmer ensuring that the climactic performance is given due coverage.

Tech credits are good. Since its stereo preem at Melbourne fest, docu has been remixed for 5.1 Surround sound.

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony

Australia

Production

A Screen Australia, Wild Fury production in association with Screen Queensland, Australian Broadcasting Corp., Melbourne Film Festival Premiere Fund. (International sales: Films Transit Intl., Montreal.) Produced by Veronica Fury. Directed by Randall Wood. Screenplay, Wood, Anthony Mullins.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Randall Wood; editor, Scott Walton; music, Havergal Brian; animation director, Paul Butler; sound, Michael Gissing. Reviewed on DVD, Sydney, Aug. 6, 2011. (In Melbourne Film Festival -- Australian Showcase.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Gary Thorpe, Veronica Fury, Malcolm McDonald, John Curro, Alison Rogers, Olga Pringle, Eugene Gilfedder, Paul Grabowski, Martin Anderson, Deborah Conway, Jason Pocock, Alyson Stimson.

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