On DVD: In Search of Beethoven

Sometimes when handling the legacy of a genius like Beethoven, it's best to let the man speak for himself. Filmmaker Phil Grabsky implicitly understands the power of the subject's own words - and, in the case of Beethoven, his music, too. In Search of Beethoven is an incisive, inquisitive documentary that compiles wide-ranging source material to form an unusually propulsive narrative life of this most towering of cultural icons.

Grabsky culls insightful commentary from a few dozen interview subjects (including Emmanuel Ax, Hélène Grimaud, Riccardo Chailly, and Sir Roger Norrington) and combines it with narration by Juliet Stevenson and readings from Beethoven's letters. In addition, we are treated to excerpts from newly-shot live performances of Beethoven's major works. Telling Beethoven's tale chronologically while balancing biographical, musical, and analytical information, Grabsky takes an approach that is both immersive and expansive. We don't just get the highlights of an accomplished life here. In Search of Beethoven takes its title seriously, investigating its subject with rare tenacity.

There is a feeling of spacious breathability about Grabsky's film; we get to spend some real time in Beethoven's world, and in his head, too. Each interview subject is allowed time to fully explicate their insights or responses to Beethoven's music, rather than being reduced to context-free sound bites. The performance footage is used extensively, and excerpts are generous enough so that we have an opportunity to really listen to them. The readings from Beethoven's letters are selected carefully and they do much to shape the sense of narrative. This isn't a rushed, 45-minute episode of Biography. In Search of Beethoven is a leisurely 139 minutes, but none of this length is wasted. A cohesive editorial strategy, guided solely by the linear chronology of its subject's life, keeps things moving forward, and the pauses to listen to excerpts from Beethoven's work are like cool oases.

Although it certainly has enormous value on its own as a film, another benefit to be gained from In Search of Beethoven is a renewed interest in classical music. I, for one, was propelled to download a number of Beethoven recordings and request a print biography from the library. This isn't because the film doesn't do a good enough job of covering its subject - it's because it does such a good job making Beethoven come alive that you want even more when the film is over. 

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