Musical Biography and Film: John Tibbetts Interviewed by Jim Welsh

Article excerpt

Prologue: This interview marks the publication of Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography, just published by Yale University Press, written by John C. Tibbetts of the University of Kansas. Dr. Tibbetts was interviewed by Jim Welsh for Film & History. Welsh recently retired as the co-founding editor of Literature/Film Quarterly.

JW: Would you explain the genesis of your book?

JCT: A personal note is in order. As a boy growing up in a small Kansas town, Leavenworth, I was greatly impressed by a late-night telecast of Charles Vidor's A Song to Remember (1944), a "life" of the Polish pianist/composer, Frédéric Chopin. Its vivid hues, heightened drama, and exciting musical presentation were unforgettable. That splash of Technicolor blood on the white piano keys during Chopin's (Cornel Wilde) fateful concert tour (surely the best remembered, albeit most notorious moment in the entire oeuvre) was particularly startling. I hungrily watched the newspapers for re-runs. For years thereafter I embarked on a search for more information about Chopin. I attended concerts and haunted record stores trying to identify the music I had heard. I even fell upon James Huneker's biography of Chopin and eagerly devoured its overheated effusions (which rivaled those of the film). As the years passed, I encountered more composer biopics and was similarly stunned by the delirious waltz sequences of Julien Duvivier's The Great Waltz (1938); James Cagney's recreation of George M. Cohan's "Give My Regards to Broadway" routine in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942); the paralyzed Frederick Delius' (Max Adrian) musical dictation to his amanuensis Eric Fenby in Ken Russell's Song of Summer, Mozart's (Tom Hulce) last gasps of the "confutatus maledictus" to Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) near the end of Amadeus; and Joseph Stalin's gigantic statue looming over the pathetic, shuffling figure of Dmitry Shostakovich (Ben Kingsley) in Tony Palmer's Testimony (1987). I am unabashed in my affection (and in some cases, guilty pleasures) for such films. And even in the most wretched of them, say, the Schubert biopic, New Wine (1940), I can find points worth talking about.

JW: Do you consider the composer biopic as a distinct genre? If so, what specific rules does the formula follow?

JCT: The better question is, are BIOPICS in general a distinct genre? I would prefer to see them as a subset of the GENRE OF HISTORICAL FILMS, i.e., those which mandate at least a casual adherence to the historical record and to real-life historical figures. Further, within the subset of BIOPICS we have the ARTIST BIOPICS, which are distinguished by their preoccupation with creative agency and artistic invention. The remaining question is, should we then separate the COMPOSER biopics from other ARTIST BIOPICS about painters, writers, sculptors, dancers, etc. Do the COMPOSER BIOPICS' audio-visual depiction of musical creativity differ from the depiction of literary, painterly, and other creative activities? I, for one, hesitate to keep breaking down these films into ever diminishing subsets. However, I do feel there has not been enough discussion of biopics in general as either a genre or a part of a genre. As for a "formula" of the general category of biopics, I offer the following: They reveal the following commonly held agendas: 1. They adapt and rewrite the narrative structures and formulas common to romantic melodramas, musicals, westerns, horror films, etc. 2. They "normalize" and contain the artist's life-depicting him or her, on the one hand, as a somewhat marginalized individual struggling against stifling societal conformism; and, on the other, as a citizen striving to compose a "song of the people" that reflects and confirms the community's own commonly held experiences. 3. They tailor the artist's life to the prevailing screen images of the actors that appear in the cast. 4. They cater to the "prestige" ambitions of the studio producers. …

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