Documentary Film Review: GENIUS WITHIN: THE INNER LIFE OF GLENN GOULD (Directed by Brett Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont)

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by Ella Martin on September 20, 2012

in Film

INFAMOUS, SOLITARY, DIFFERENT

From White Pine Pictures comes a dense, detailed portrayal of one of the most profoundly singular musicians of all time: the tremendously gifted, relentlessly driven Glenn Gould.

Gould, known as much for his eccentricity as his remarkable musical ability, played his first concert at thirteen.  Over the two decades that followed, his fame as a concert pianist grew exponentially until, at thirty-one, he retired from concertizing forever.

A musicians’ musician, he seemed to recreate compositions with an auteur-like approach, offering new interpretations of long-established works.  His first recording for Columbia Records was of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and his revelatory rendition brought him lasting acclaim, forever linking the piece to his name.   Fran Barrault, the ex-girlfriend of his teenage years, twinkles as she refers to the renown recordings as “The Gouldberg Variations.”

In spite of the film’s title, Gould’s “Inner Life” is explored from a distinctly external perspective.  We see archival footage of Gould when he knows he’s on camera, but for the most part he is presented through the eyes of other people—childhood friends, ex-lovers, colleagues, and music historians—all of whom share stories of his uniqueness, intensity, and vulnerability.

Ruth Henderson, a classmate at the Royal Academy of Music in Toronto, remembers Glenn as a very young man: “Even in those early days, he was always bundled up.”  Even then, he wore his signature attire—a heavy overcoat, gloves, and a scarf, regardless of the weather.

Ella Martin’s Stage and Cinema review of the documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

He is portrayed as a man of abnormal habits, working in the very early hours of the morning, refusing handshakes to prevent injury to his hands, singing along as he played, and performing only on a special 13” chair his father had cut the legs off of for him.  Although for the most part wildly esteemed by the public, he distrusted them, saying, “En masse, I detest audiences.  I think they are a force of evil.  It seems to me rule of mob law.”

Henderson’s explanation and subsequent demonstration of his signature piano technique, acquired while studying with Alberto Guerrero, is illuminating.  After all, technique can be taught so why has there been only one Glenn Gould?  What quality, event, or mysterious essence allows an artist to bridge the gap between greatness and genius?

The soundtrack is a music-lover’s delight.  In addition to stirring recordings by Glenn Gould himself, it features careful pairings that, for the attuned listener, connect with scenes not only emotionally but also contextually, in terms of the history of when and how the chosen music was written or performed.

Ella Martin’s Stage and Cinema review of the documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

If one is willing to overlook one regrettable technical blemish, an annoying humming sound that pervades much of the footage from the present-day, an intricate portrait of a fascinating human being is waiting to be seen, experienced, and pondered.

At the film’s conclusion, one feels a mixture of intimacy and alienation.  Gould’s life and career offer an iconic example of the seemingly incompatible extremes in the relationship of an artist to his audience—and vice versa.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
White Pine Pictures
Canada, 106 min., unrated
available on Cinemanow, Playstation, and XBOX
to view film, visit FilmBuff

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