Retracing Gould’s genius, media savvy

Documentary hints at similarities to Michael Jackson

The life of Glenn Gould, the James Dean of classical pianists, is more shrouded in myth than fact. But the documentary “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould,” which opens in New York on Friday and in Los Angeles on Sept. 24, unpeels layer upon layer to get at what made the troubled genius tick as an artist and an eccentric.

As the filmmakers — both Canadians, like Gould — make clear, with wall-to-wall Gould recordings and extensive interviews with the subject culled from archives, Gould’s greatest contribution to the arts was freeing up classical music from its stodgy moorings and allowing for some rather radical interpretations of such sacred figures as Bach and Brahms.

As the film points out early on, Gould felt that the role of musicians was to bring something new and different to classical music with their own unique interpretations. “At the time it wasn’t done,” says Michele Hozer, co-director with Peter Raymont of “Genius Within.” “It opened brand new doors for musicians and to all of us, and that was very freeing for a lot of musicians.”

One of the more storied episodes in Gould’s career was when Leonard Bernstein, who was conducting Gould and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1962, prefaced the performance by respectfully disagreeing with Gould’s “unorthodox” interpretation of Brahms’ D Minor Concerto. “I have only once before had to submit to a soloist’s totally new and incompatible concept,” he told the audience, “and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould.”

Most pianists would kill for the technique Gould displayed in his very first, and most famous, recording, Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1956), performed at age of 23. In the age of Twitter and “American Idol,” it’s hard to imagine another musician with Gould’s singular focus and enigmatic charisma. And although he retired from live performance, which he loathed, at 31, to concentrate on composition, his inability to write original music was more than compensated by his writings and radio documentaries, which he considered his own his own form of composition.

As the film suggests, though not literally, the parallels between Michael Jackson, the King of Pop and Gould, the King of Classical Piano were uncanny: both were child music prodigies, militantly private, willfully eccentric, control freakish, prone to hypochondria and paranoia, prescription drug abusers, and died untimely deaths at age 50 — just as their careers were experiencing a second wind. They also donned gloves, but for different reasons (Gould felt he had to protect his nimble fingers from the elements, and even refused to shake hands for fear of injury).

Like the Beatles, Gould was much more comfortable in the recording studio, where he allowed his controlling nature to reach its apex. In fact, in interviews later in his life, he would insist on formulating the questions for journalists in order to give scripted answers.

“He’s mesmerizing,” says Hozer. “He understood the power of the media; he understood how to use it; he knew he could send his message through that and I wanted as much as possible to have him narrate his story because he was all over: in radio, in television, in film.”

The filmmakers culled footage from the Gould estate, the Canadian Broadcasting Co., Canada’s National Archives, and the Columbia Records archives, which provided many of the more than 300 stills that were found in the basement of Sony’s building in New York.

Among the film’s rarities are an amusing home movie of Gould cavorting on the beach in the Bahamas, stills from Gould’s trip to Russia in 1957 and, perhaps the film’s ace in the hole, interviews with the last love of Gould’s life, Cornelia Foss, who left her husband, classical pianist Lukas Foss, to live with Gould with her two children in Toronto in 1968 before she went back to her husband five years later due to Gould’s increasing instability.

Unlike fellow Canadian musicians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Gould chose to stay in Canada, which made him even more of a national treasure.

“Gould could have lived anywhere,” says Hozer. “He certainly could have lived in new York, and instead decided to live in his hometown, in Toronto, in a very modest apartment, and I think that the people here allowed him to live this sort of anonymous life that he was looking for and that he needed that distance to be able to do what he was doing.”