In the spirit of Oscar season, we offer some suggested viewing: Hollywood’s take on Lives of the Great Composers. Viewer beware. What you see is not always good history, and not always good cinema. But even the most outrageously off-target movie on this list offers music lovers some enjoyment. Not everything here is a classic, but each in its own way is fun. Most are available on DVD and may also be available for online viewing. (This list, incidentally, includes only the most high-profile film biographies of the past several decades. There’s more out there….)
Beethoven (1937) Harry Baur as the tortured, Romantic composer of the title. A silent film (made a decade into the talkie era), as might befit the story of a man who lost his hearing, with a soundtrack that portrays the frightening onset of deafness and that uses the Fifth Symphony in the most melodramatic of ways. Directed by Abel Gance.
Song to Remember (1945) Cornel Wilde as Chopin, Merle Oberon as George Sand. Directed by Charles Vidor. Despite some goofiness, this film manages to convey some truths about the performing life.
Song of Love (1947) Katherine Hepburn as Clara Schumann, Paul Henreid as Robert, and Robert Walker as a young Johannes Brahms. Corny and lovable, one of the more durable composer biopics. Directed by Clarence Brown.
Song Without End (1960) Dirk Bogarde as Franz Liszt. Enough said. Directed by Charles Vidor and George Cukor.
Wagner (1982) Richard Burton in the title role. Nine hours, and long ones. Directed by Tony Palmer.
Amadeus (1984) Peter Schafer’s play comes to the screen as Tom Hulce gives us a bizarre Mozart opposite F. Murray Abraham’s award-winning Salieri. Directed by Milos Forman.
Spring Symphony (1986) You might think Nastassia Kinski oddly cast as a young Clara Schumann, but this story of Clara and Robert’s budding love is curiously moving. Directed by Peter Schamoni.
Immortal Beloved (1994) Gary Oldman in an over-the-top performance as Beethoven. The best thing about this one is Isabella Rosselini, but she disappears halfway through. Directed by Bernard Rose.
Bride of the Wind (2001) Sarah Wynter as Alma Mahler, Jonathan Pryce as Gustav. Touching, visually stunning film. Directed by Bruce Beresford.
In a category of their own are two of the stranger biopics, films of genuine excess, both directed by Ken Russell:
The Music Lovers (1971) Richard Chamberlain as a Tchaikovsky who struggles with being gay, Glenda Jackson as the woman who falls in love with him. Weird and fascinating.
Mahler (1974) Robert Powell in the title role, with Georgina Hale as Alma. This one has something to offend everyone. Any relationship between the characters in this film and persons in real life is purely coincidental.