In Search of Mozart

(Phil Grabsky, 2006, UK)


I get tired of seeing documentaries made for television on a cinema screen. In the case of In Search of Mozart, of course, there were several extenuating factors for such a displacement: 2006 marked the 250th anniversary of the great composer's birth and, for some viewers at least, the music is going to sound much better through public speakers than through their home viewing rig-up.

Mozart buffs will undoubtedly enjoy this well-researched, painstaking account that runs for over two hours. It aims to correct the popular myths and misunderstandings perpetuated by the success of Amadeus (1984), and to delicately place all known facts about this precocious genius – including his taste for toilet humour.

The most revealing and likable aspect of the footage that director Phil Grabsky has collected is the abundant evidence of how top performers (including Angelika Kirchschlager, Lang Lang and Janine Jansen) lose themselves in the joyfulness of the music. At moments, the camerawork recaptures the sensation of being "inside the music" that Jean-Luc Godard immortalised in the string quartet rehearsal scenes of Prenom: Carmen (1983).

In a somewhat plodding and conventional way, there are really only three major elements in In Search of Mozart: talking heads (some quite engaging, such as Jonathan Miller), performance snippets, and archival photos – the same, very few archival photos that we have seen before and will see here again and again, with cheesy pans and zooms across their surface to "animate" them.

The "in search of" title cues another conceit: Grabsky physically "retraces" the path of Mozart and his family across various European cities. This means, in effect, that there are many shots of cars on modern-day highways, and that whenever there is a reference in the voice-over to women or children, we will see contemporary footage of women and children in the streets, waving, laughing, eating, etc. This device quickly becomes wearisome.

One might have hoped for a stronger, more political reading of Mozart's operas, rather than the endless harping on the complexity of his genius and his equal ranking with Shakespeare. Finally, however, the film is mercifully not a genuflection in the church of high culture; it brings the spirit of Mozart and his achievement alive as well as any formulaic television doco can hope to do.

MORE Grabsky: The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan

© Adrian Martin February 2006

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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