Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Stephen Fry explores music, fandom and guilt in Patrick McGrady's WAGNER & ME

Stephen Fry (on poster, foreground) is a delightful humorist, satirist and general wit; a gifted performer (Wilde, Bright Young Things -- which he also adapted and directed -- and  V for Vendetta), writer, director and manic depressive. He is also, as we quickly learn from the new documentary WAGNER & ME, a Jew and an enormous fan of Richard Wagner -- two things that are not always found in the same room. Adolf Hitler was also a big fan of the anti-semitic composer, and his "take" on Wagner's work smacks of the "master race" hoped for and then fought for by the Nazis in World War II. The documentary is Fry's attempt, abetted by the film's director, Patrick McGrady (shown below), to assuage what TrustMovies perceives to be Fry's guilt about this perhaps somewhat unusual pairing.

The movie is mostly Mr. Fry, all the way and all the time, and the man appears to be in a very "up" and rather proselytizing mood. He wants us to love (as much as he himself does) Wagner's music, along with the composer's ability to create some astounding operas, taking music into a heretofore unexplored realm. As creator and narrator, host and guide in this documentary, Fry seems in a quite jovial mood, and this is mostly contagious. After awhile, however, I longed for more of his usual distance, irony and wit -- little of which is to be found here. (Toward the beginning, though, he does amuse us by noting that, "You stand around waiting for a Valkyrie for hours -- and then they all come at once.")

As a Jew who lost family to the Holocaust, Fry's being torn between guilt about and love for Wagner's music earns our understanding and empathy. And so his taking us on a tour of the places most important to the musician -- Switzerland (with its beauty) to Bayreuth (where he built the theater that would house his work) to his patron Ludwig's famous Neuschwanstein castle (above) -- seem both appropriate and enjoyable. To a point.

Fry fingers Wagner's own piano (above: a gift to the composer from the Steinway company) in Bayreuth; travels to Russia, to a city nearly destroyed by the Nazis to interview an opera director more than willing to perform Wagner; then meets the composer's great grand-daughters, two sisters who are now in charge of the annual Wagner festival -- one of whom will have nothing to do with Fry's little "ode to posterity."

Often dressed in bright red slacks and yellow shirt, Fry provides almost as visually interesting a view as he does intellectually. "What is it about Wagner's music," he asks us, "which inspires someone" (Hitler, Ludwig) "to seize on his stories and ideas -- which belong in the theater -- and seek to give them substance in the real world instead?"  Well, yes, but wouldn't Wagner have been delighted at that outcome? Did he not fully believe in what he created? Fry muses about the music inspiring us to tear down the boundaries separating fact and fantasy, and how Wagner's work is like some great, gorgeous and complex tapestry that has been irretrievably stained.

Are we, Fry wonders, looking at Wagner's work only through Hitler's viewfinder? Doubtful. In a particularly thoughtful few moments, Fry visits an Auschwitz survivor who played in the famous orchestra there made up of Jewish prisoners. Her thoughts on music and Wagner are most interesting. So, does our hero manage to reach some level of accommodation with his Wagner love and his Jewish heritage? Maybe.

In any case, his final remarks -- which I will not give away here -- may break your heart because, if you love this composer's work, you would so much wish that they were true.

Wagner & Me opens -- after playing in Chicago last week -- this Friday, December 7, in New York City at the Quad Cinema and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. In the weeks to come it will play in another half dozen cities. You can click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters. (And that's the gifted anti-semite himself, shown above.)

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