Friday, December 21, 2012

Wagner & Me

Fair warning/disclaimer: I missed the first minute or three of Wagner & Me as the bus from Fenway kept slipping while I waited for it (it seemed to be 3 minutes away for fifteen minutes). Hate when that happens, but I kept waiting because this was the MFA's last screening. Maybe if I hadn't stayed through all of The Hobbit's many credits, waiting for a preview that never came, I would have caught the previous one.

I came to this as a fan of Stephen Fry as opposed to having much particular interest in Richard Wagner. The composer does make for an interesting topic, although I can't say that I'm going to be rushing out to purchase great big Ring Cycle box sets as a result. That isn't exactly the purpose of the film, anyway - as much as Fry SPOILERS! ultimately says that he will continue enjoying Wagner because the music is good, !SRELIOPS it's not a movie about convincing. Though Fry and director Patrick McGrady do a fine job in explaining what Wagner did well, it comes down to "I heard it and liked it".

Truth be told, I like that; too many documentaries often seem like preaching to the choir while too few are simply informative. As much as documentaries with a strong point of view and mission behind them (especially if they are anti-authoritarian enough to be considered "brave") seem to get more critical acclaim, I tend to come to documentaries more via curiosity than passion, and therefore tend to favor the ones that put facts before me over those that arrange said facts in a pointed way.

On a completely different note, this isn't the only thing I saw in the last few weeks because of Fry's participation; on the first night of my London vacation, I saw him tread the boards in an "original practices" production of Twelfth Night. That was a lot of fun, although I must say that my first night in the city, not having slept that much on the plane (after staying up too long in an attempt to avoid jet lag by sleeping on the plane), did not have me in a particularly alert frame of mind for it. I do remember Fry giving a great performance, though, as did Mark Rylance (I was also pleased to recognize an actor from Black Pond). Just, man, how great would it have been completely rested?

Wagner & Me

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 December 2012 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (special engagement, digital)

Wagner & Me is probably only going to be terribly educational for those like myself whose musical knowledge is relatively shallow - the folks who sing "kill the wab-bit!" to ourselves when a certain bit of Richard Wagner's most famous piece shows up on the soundtrack. Fortunately, it is nicely informative for that audience, and even for those in the audience who know everything he's saying, it's an hour and a half of Stephen Fry expounding on an enthusiasm, and that's always a pleasant time.

Mister Fry is, among many other things, a lover of Wagner's music, and he is quite excited to come to Wagner's hometown of Bayreuth and the theater that the composer built there for the express purpose of showing his "musical dramas". The theater now hosts an annual music festival centered around Wagner's Ring Cycle, with a seven-year waiting list for tickets. And yet, Fry tells us, he is ambivalent about supporting it; being Jewish, it is hard for him to overlook just how strongly the music is associated with the Nazis (he was a favorite of Hitler and the Wagner family supported the Nazis well before not doing so was suicide), and the anti-Semitism in the man's own writings.

Fry and filmmaker Patrick McGrady investigating Wagner's life and music and trying to reconcile those feelings gives them a reason to crisscross Europe while using Bayreuth as a home base, making stops in Nuremberg, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg to visit the important scenes of Wagner's life and afterlife where music is performed and scholars are interviewed. It is, generally, a good overview; McGrady never seems to be glossing over any portion of his subject's story, and while the examples of Wagner's work are often briefer than they perhaps must be (even when he doesn't have to try and deliver the essence of a four-hour opera in five minutes), he and Fry do a fair job of explaining things that may seem rather opaque to non-musicians.

The strength and weakness of that framework is Fry himself. Stephen Fry is a man of varied and voluble enthusiasms, and each visit to a new location brings forth the giddy joy of a teenage girl with a backstage pass for her favorite band. It's sometimes a bit distracting, but much more often it's infectious, especially since he manages the neat trick of combining an appreciation for high art with an utter lack of snobbery. This unabashed love for the music makes it hard to see him actually wrestle with the decision; aside from one interesting scene where he seems to be asking a cellist who survived the Holocaust permission to enjoy Wagner's music, the topic of anti-Semitism occasionally seems to come up in interviews out of obligation more than as a matter of real difficulty. The decision he ultimately makes is seldom in doubt.

It would be easy for that aspect of Wagner to overwhelm the entire production, which would miss the point that he is more than just a few ugly magazine articles and a truly repugnant fan. Wagner & Me is a basic primer fit for a BBC or PBS afternoon slot, though far more charming than most.

No comments: