Digging for Gould
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, documentary, The Screen, 2.5 chiles
When the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould died in 1982, at the age of 50, he was one of the most famous of solitary persons. He guarded his privacy to the point where one might say he fetishized it. That, of course, made many music lovers all the more eager to penetrate it, and the fascination shows no signs of losing steam. One of the talking heads in the new film Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould observes that Gould was “an icon in the same vein as James Dean.”
This is far from the first film to take on the Gould legend. Curious music lovers may, for example, turn to Glenn Gould: On & Off the Record, which consists of a pair of CBC documentaries that he put together himself in 1959 and that afford half-hour glimpses into his private and public worlds. Various films of Gould performances are available on DVD, and in 2005 Bruno Monsaingeon, a noted music documentary maker and a longtime friend of the pianist’s, released the film Glenn Gould: Au delà du temps (released for English speakers as Glenn Gould: Hereafter), which lays out the contours of Gould’s life and career with fervent admiration. The most creative cinematic take on Gould was surely Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, made
by François Girard in 1993, its 32 segments (reflecting the structure of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a work with which Gould was much associated) conveying a fractured, cubistic point of view that reflects something of its subject’s eccentric makeup.
Genius Within offers a more forthright narrative that lays out his biography, from his origins in an unremarkable Toronto neighborhood through to his early demise due to a stroke and his mourning by a grief-stricken nation. Gould’s early life is reasonably well captured in photographs, and the film’s directors, who had the support of the Gould Foundation, make good use of the available images. His career took off in 1955 when, the day after his New York debut, he was given a contract by Columbia Records. From that moment forward, his public life was documented extensively. Nonetheless, the film’s directors have created a number of scenes in which an actor portrays the pianist, usually in private moments of the sort that escaped the intrusion of cameras and lenses.
The story is eked out with commentary from a number of admirers, including the Gould biographer Kevin Bazzana and several well-known musicians (violinist Jaime Laredo, cellist Fred Sherry, conductor and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy), although it’s sometimes not clear just who is speaking in the voice-over. I do wish the film had not included a comment by Columbia record producer Howard Scott, who states that “the first piece he recorded for us, which nobody had ever done,” was the Goldberg Variations, since by then the Goldbergs had been recorded quite a few times by others. Coming from the distinguished Scott, it’s easy to overlook as a misstatement in a careless moment; yet it is a factoid that seems to have lodged in the Gould mythology.
We are given a demonstration of the “finger-tapping” technique Gould learned from his teacher, the Chilean Canadian Alberto Guerrero; it, abetted by Gould’s idiosyncratic seating on a chair just 13 inches off the floor, gave rise to the distinctive clarity of his playing. We stop for short visits at various high points of the musician’s career: his sensational Russian tour of 1957; Leonard Bernstein’s controversial distancing himself from a lugubrious Brahms collaboration with Gould in 1962; and Gould’s
“An icon in the same vein as James Dean”: Glenn Gould