LIFE WITH MUSIC – Review
Okay cinema, you’ve been taunting us with films concerning things we can’t enjoy because of the pandemic (aside from actually seeing flicks in our favorite chain multiplex, although a smattering have reopened mostly with older movies). A couple of days ago it was renting an online getaway home, before that, it was road trips and movies set in faraway lands. Now, it’s the concert experience. This somewhat new release isn’t about a touring rock n’ roll band or a hard-partying country crooner (they’ve been doing a variation of the movies’ solution with drive-in concerts and simulcasts). We’re entering the world of classical music, with a profile of a celebrated pianist, so an indoor venue, a hall or auditorium, is preferred for the acoustics and intimacy. Oh, playing the “keyboard virtuoso’ is an actor that garnered lots of press and praise earlier this year for returning to the role that made him world-famous several decades ago. But he still wants to show us his versatility as a man who struggles to combine LIFE WITH MUSIC.
At the start of this story, we’re sitting right on the bench in a packed concert hall next to world-famous classical pianist Henry Cole (Patrick Stewart). The audience is in awe, but Henry is suffering for his art. Concluding his complex final piece, he bolts from the stage and heads out the stage door into the alley. As Henry doffs his jacket and loosens his tie, the door flings open to reveal his agent/manager Paul (Giancarlo Esposito). It’s the start of Henry’s comeback/final tour after he took time out to mourn the death of his wife, and Paul reminds him that he “owes” the audience an encore number. But this unexpected panic attack precludes that. Still, Henry has to “meet the press” who grill him over the lack of an encore. As Henry fumbles for an answer, he notices a late arrival, New Yorker music critic Helen Morrison (Katie Holmes). As the reporters drift away, she timidly inquires about a further interview, part of a profile for the magazine. He declines but later finds that her words occupy his thoughts. To his surprise, she shows up at his appearance days later at Steinway Hall. When his “performance panic’ kicks in, she joins him at the piano for an impromptu duet. Helen proves to be a calming influence, so he happily agrees to the interview. At another concert, Henry is overwhelmed and refuses to resume after the intermission. A frazzled Paul is ecstatic to see Helen who talks Henry “down”. The two then become inseparable as she joins him on the road and at his home in the forests of upper New York state. After some “downtime” Henry decides to continue with his farewell tour which will conclude with a highly publicized London concert, set to be live-streamed around the globe. But will tragedy prevent Henry from taking that final bow?
The film is carried by the “out of the box” casting of Stewart as Henry. Whether he’s leading Starfleet officers or mutants into battle, the actor effortlessly projects strength and confidence, even as he reads Shakespeare sonnets on the internet. This role demands that he show a more timid, vulnerable side, one we’ve not really seen since his acclaimed (perhaps) final turn as Xavier in LOGAN. As he views the music notes on a page of sheet music they seem to smother him, his panic is palpable as we can almost smell the “flop-sweat”. Henry’s certainly emotionally wounded but we also see him begin to heal, his grimace slowly cracks into a grin. This leads to the revealing of his gentle nature, as when Henry shares his gifts with a young fan. Stewart draws us in with his commanding presence and serene vocal style. This helps bring out a subtle, restrained performance by Holmes who’s most believable as the soothing balm to Henry’s ills. She may be the “good cop” to Esposito’s, well maybe not bad cop, but definitely a taskmaster. He deftly ” keeps lots of plates spinning” as he gently nudges Henry out of his ‘comfort zone’, believing in his talents, but trying to satisfy and placate all the forces dependent on “the talent”. He truly cares about Henry, as we see his mind scrambling to say the right words and encouragement to bring a great career to a spectacular finale.
First-time feature director Claude Lalonde keeps the story from screenwriter Louis Godbout flowing at a leisurely pace, giving us a real insider’s view of the classical music concert world. They both deal with the tale’s unconventional romance, namely the “age thing”, with restraint (after Henry expresses his concerns, Helen replies, “You got a thing against young people?”) and the complex friendship/ business partnership between Henry and Paul. Unfortunately, though, much of the Henry/Helen scenes consist of long walking montages with voiceovers of her spouting “touch-feely” platitudes. Speaking of, the characters, particularly Henry, spend long swathes of the running time strolling, watching other pedestrians, and staring at their surroundings. Some of which are lovely though, especially a side trip to Sils-Maria in the Swiss Alps. Ultimately those scenes are confusing as we realize that the story is doing “fast-forward” time- jumps with little purpose. The momentum of the plot is thrown off, much as with the many close-ups of Helen looking at Henry with bright-eyed, smiling admiration. Fans of the classic composers and of the superb Stewart will find much to enjoy, but LIFE WITH MUSIC wrecks its tempo when away from the keyboard.
2 out of 4
LIFE WITH MUSIC is available as a Digital Download on most streaming platforms and apps such as iTunes, Amazon, and Google.