By Danny King.
In the press notes for Grand Piano, director Eugenio Mira states the following: “Having been raised by wolves like Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Brian De Palma and the Master of Masters Sir Alfred Hitchcock, when I first heard of Grand Piano’s premise, the feral infant film-geek in me sprang out of my heart in a split second, leaving a smile on my face wider than Australia.” This is both the movie’s best asset and its most maddening feature: to be sure, the film’s original screenplay, by Damien Chazelle (director of this year’s Sundance prize-winner Whiplash), is feeble and contrived enough to demand a director who’s willing to invest it with some gonzo energy, and Mira does exactly that. At the same time, however, the movie is ultimately so inconsequential and uninteresting from a character standpoint that the director’s countless in-camera and digital flourishes occasionally have the effect of merely highlighting what’s hollow about the film: by the ninth crane shot, or the eighth tracking shot, or the sixth Steadicam move, we’re less wowed by the technique than we are hyper-aware of the material’s triviality.
The protagonist of Grand Piano, Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), is a troubled piano prodigy, and the film’s main event is Tom’s reintegration into public life after a period of shame-induced isolation. Five years after botching a performance of a famously difficult piece, Tom—with the support of his movie-star wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé)—decides to return to the Chicago stage to reclaim his dignity. What’s more, the piano he’ll be playing on—a dusty, ancient, eight-octave Bösendorfer that is removed from storage in the film’s opening sequence—was once owned by his celebrated, now-deceased mentor. In language that confirms the stakes of the situation, a pre-performance radio interviewer (voiced by E.T.’s Dee Wallace) describes Tom as the “brightest piano player of his generation.” (For good measure, the interviewer also calls Emma the “brightest movie star of her generation.”)
The vast majority of Grand Piano is set inside the concert hall, and though such a physical parameter might represent a limitation for certain filmmakers, Mira has an absolute ball filming every inch of the set in imaginative and resourceful ways. Consider a show-stopping use of split-screen that solidifies the Brian De Palma influence: on the right side of the frame, there is a drastic zoom-in on Tom’s live performance; on the left side of the frame, a body is being dragged through one of the building’s upper corridors. Consider, too, the equally show-stopping graphic match from a throat-slit to the stroke of an instrument. Mira and cinematographer Unax Mendía—shooting on 35mm—also prove adept at manipulating perspective in order to dwarf Tom’s figure on the stage: when he first walks out to greet the crowd and meet his piano, he appears remarkably tiny, like an ant crawling across a canvas of blood and gold.
Plot is where things get less impressive: not long after Tom begins his performance, he notices threatening scribbles, written in red marker, on his sheet music. The first one sums up the situation well: “Play one wrong note and you die.” Tom does his best to continue his performance unabatedly, all the while registering the messages and wondering who might have written them. (Later, Phone Booth-style, the assailant—voiced by John Cusack—will switch his approach and speak to Tom through an earpiece.) Watching this movie just a few days after seeing the similarly high-concept Non-Stop, it’s strange how glaring the parallels between the two films are: the sight of Wood’s Tom being threatened through written messages in a very public location is practically a direct mirror of Liam Neeson’s Bill Marks reading threatening texts on a crowded plane, the messages scrolling across the screen as Neeson receives them. Though their personalities are opposite (Neeson’s the brooding alcoholic, Wood’s the timid, stage-frightened wunderkind), we trust both of them implicitly, and seeing them put through the wringer is the point of both movies.
Grand Piano shares with Non-Stop an eagerness to explore its setting. Both throughout and prior to Tom’s performance, Mira takes his camera into the nooks and crannies of the location: the dressing rooms, the video-monitor spaces, even the innards of the very instrument Tom is playing. But where director Jaume Collet-Serra’s superior Non-Stop is characterized by both tangible emotional conflict and a fundamental appreciation for the power of a good ensemble—each supporting character in it is vividly rendered—Grand Piano can only offer a neat set-up and a dazzling satchel of directorial tricks. Moreover, at its worst, that satchel is rather tiresome: Mira doesn’t seem to be conscious of the fact that overcompensating for minor material with formal fireworks can be extremely off-putting.
In this regard, Grand Piano evokes another formally voracious, Dario Argento-esque recent film: Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. Like Grand Piano, Strickland’s movie centers on a sonically inclined artist—a meek sound engineer played by Toby Jones—who slowly starts to question his sanity. Both of these films use hyped-up formalism to depict the madness of their main characters, and though Berberian’s stylistic trade is more pronounced in its reliance on sound, Mira isn’t opposed to employing the occasional sonic embellishment—the subjective beating of a heart, for instance—to present Tom’s frazzled mental state. Both of these films, however, suffer from protagonists that are mostly conceived on a surface level. We can enjoy the bravado of these filmmakers for their sheer energy and excitability, but let’s not mistake the films for high art just yet.
Danny King is an undergraduate in the Cinema Studies department at New York University. He is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. His writings have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Paste Magazine, The Film Stage, and other publications.