The name of the film is “In Search of Mozart,” which might make one wonder when he ever went away. Celebrated in his own time (Phil Grabsky’s documentary clarifies that the composer did not, in fact, die a pauper) and immortalized by succeeding generations, Mozart has, as they say, held up. The 250th anniversary of his birth was commemorated not just with concerts and fresh CDs, but also a cycle of international art films (some of which, including “Syndromes and a Century,” “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone,” “Opera Jawa,” and “Daratt,” played in San Francisco this past spring) commissioned under the aegis of Peter Sellars’ “New Crowned Hope” project. Now comes “In Search of Mozart,” a comprehensive overview of the composer’s generous genius and one of the finest examples of the PBS-style, talking heads-and-cutaways documentaries in recent memory. Rather than reducing the master to a droning narration, Grabsky’s portrait is sprightly in its multitude of voices, interweaving the perspectives of historians, conductors, and musicians like so many elements of a symphony which would better be called, “In Praise of Mozart.”
And what impassioned, gleaming praise it is. The films roughly sticks to the chronological script of Mozart’s life, but the real prizes here come as digressions in which the experts walk us through particular compositions — often with a piano, sometimes just with a humming voice — explicating how various pieces illustrate the composer’s maturation, depth of feeling, and startling originality. For a non-musician, what’s especially striking about these private lessons is the extent to which the players connect to the compositions on a profoundly personal level, as if it were communion. One pianist talks about the “conversations” layered into a piece, another describes the deep sense of “human though…questioning…wondering” conveyed, and yet another describes the famous “K550 Symphony in G Minor, Number 40” as being “full of sighing and screaming.”
Interviewees return again and again to Mozart’s compositions being virtuosic tours of musical forms with an extra layer of unique genius (it’s in this spirit that his work is properly compared to Shakespeare’s) and to the sense of “naturalness” in his compositions: another way of saying that, for many, it’s impossible to imagine a world without Mozart. These moments of musical inspiration are effectively tied back to the composer’s biography without fiddling with undue psychoanalysis. Much color is gleaned from the wonderfully detailed day-to-day correspondence within Mozart’s family — no “Shakespeare in Love”-type elaborations are necessary with such lively descriptions of life and work (and a good bit of toilet humor at that). Kudos to Grabsky for striving to render the master in all his humanness.
With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.
Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.
Saraf and Light's work is marked by an unwavering appreciation for underdogs and outsiders.
A film on Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller bucks biopic formula and concentrates on a pivotal moment in the leader's life.
Goldman Prize-winning environmentalists' work highlighted in short-form pieces by Parrinello, Antonelli and Dusenbery.
Mill Valley amps up the star wattage in its annual mix of local, international titles.
An East Bay filmmaker takes another look at U.S. financial woes with 'Heist,' which world premieres at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
John Turturro shares his passion for the Neapolitan songbook.