Grand Piano (2013)

A shorter version of this was first published by Little White Lies

“If you play music this dense, you’re gonna hit a wrong note. And they won’t know. They never do.”

This is the reassurance that bon vivant conductor Norman Reisinger (Don McManus) gives nervous pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) before a performance. Tom is a world-renowned virtuoso who, five years earlier, had choked in the middle of a public recital of La Cinquette, a notoriously difficult solo piece that only he and its composer Patrick Godureaux had the supreme technical finesse to play. Ever since, Tom has suffered from crippling stagefright – but now, after Godureaux’s death, Tom has reluctantly agreed to make a comeback for a very special tribute concert in Chicago, where his one-time friend and mentor’s treasured piano, a customised Imperial Bösendorfer, will appear for the first and last time on stage.

A classical concert hall full of Chicago’s well-groomed élite. An evening’s entertainment of refinement and sophistication, where all the tension is focused on a prodigiously talented musician’s struggle to overcome his own nerves. If all this sounds like art of the highest kind, it is about to collide with the ‘low’ of genre cinema, as Tom finds himself, mid-concert, being secretly taunted and manipulated by an unseen sniper who wants the pianist to essay the dreaded La Cinquette once again, and is threatening to kill the pianist and his actress wife Emma (Kerry Bishé) if a single wrong note is hit. Now Tom must not only play to perfection, but also outwit his persecutor and save his wife/life, all while keeping his own cool – and his oblivious audience enthralled.

The same producers who, with Buried (2010), set themselves the immense challenge of confining everything to the claustrophobic interior of a coffin, are here attempting to conceal a hyperbolic heist thriller within a genteel chamber (music) piece. Taking the suspense of the concert-hall sequences from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) or even D.J. Caruso’s Eagle Eye (2008) and extending it over the duration of an entire film, director Eugenio (Agnosia) Mira has crafted a finely tuned rendition of Damien (Whiplash) Chazelle’s impossible script, all revealing the behind-the-scenes blood, sweat and tears – and the unspoken pursuit of hard lucre – that contribute to any artistic endeavour, orchestral or cinematic. Tom becomes Mira’s substitute, as both try to dazzle their paying public while playing out complementary yet contrapuntal themes.

Still, if you make a movie this dense, you’re bound to hit a wrong note. Perhaps some viewers, swept up in the virtuosic lavishness of it all, will not notice how utterly preposterous is the sniper’s – and therefore the film’s – plotting, but for this viewer, the overt contrivance of Grand Piano‘s high concept leaves it feeling like a lifeless technical exercise. We first meet Tom anxious (as ever) on a plane flying to Chicago. Perhaps he should just have watched a film like Grand Piano for distraction – after all, a plane is probably the perfect place for it.

Anticipation: Enjoyed director Mira’s Agnosia.

Enjoyment: Like Snakes on a Plane – in a concert hall.

In Retrospect: The filmmaking virtuosity is admirable, but in the end it’s more flat than sharp.

Anton Bitel