Pianists in Movies

by Melissa Terrall

I’m a pianist, studying piano performance at Portland State University.  My dream is to build a career as a performer, teacher, and researcher in the field of piano performance.  I thought it would be interesting and enlightening to look at this identity in popular culture.  How does popular culture view and portray pianists?
I was not expecting to find so many movies and TV shows with pianists in them.  But when I searched on IMDb, it came up with 846 titles!  In the end, I narrowed my topic by looking at pianists in movies specifically (not TV shows).  I watched three very different films from three different decades: Shine (1996), The Pianist (2002), and La La Land (2016).
Though all three movies feature pianists, they could not have been more diverse.  The Pianist is definitely the most sobering of the bunch.  It tells the story of Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who worked in Warsaw and survived the horrors of the Jewish ghetto and the holocaust.  Shine tells the story of pianist David Helfgott (also Jewish, as it turns out) who had to stand up to his stern father who stood in the way of his musical education.
La La Land is very different than the other two.  For one, it’s fictional, telling the story of two artists – a jazz pianist and actor – who have aspirations of careers in the arts.  It’s a musical in the style of the old classics; and though it’s lighthearted in comparison with the other films I watched, it also tells of the struggles that pianists – and artists in general – face in pursuing their career.
Movies about pianists are at their best when they explore and appreciate the nuance of a piano career instead of dramatizing it.  The movie The Pianist portrays a pianist questioning the meaning of his work against backdrop of the dark reality of World War II and Nazi oppression.  Does his music career have meaning during a war?
In one particular scene, Szpilman approaches a conspirator to see if he can join the resistance against the Germans.  “Please let me do something!” he says.  Szpilman hasn’t been idle; he has been working in fancy cafés in the ghetto, playing piano for wealthy people.  In this way, he has been helping to support his parents and siblings.  Still, he pleads to be able to “do something.”  He seems to be wondering whether his work as a pianist is really meaningful or worth anything.  His conspirator friend says that Szpilman is “too famous” and would only endanger himself and others should he join the resistance movement.  “You’re an artist – you keep people’s spirits up!”  This man encourages him because he believes in the necessity of musical art in such a dark time.
Soon thereafter, Szpilman’s brother scorns his brother’s profession: “you work?” he sneers.  So we see these two contrasting views of the pianist’s work.  One man says it is essential for keeping up morale, and another scorns it as pointless.  Caught between the two is the pianist, loving his career but simultaneously questioning it.
I think this is a question that pianists ask often: is what I do just a hobby?  Can I actually make a meaningful career out of this?  These thoughts were certainly on my mind when I was considering whether to pursue a music degree, and it continues to be something I ponder as I take steps toward finishing my degree and beginning my career.  Sometimes, movies give us the idea that this journey of becoming a musician is something magical.
I think that the film Shine was unrealistic in the way it depicted the work it takes to be a pianist.  The portrayal of practice, lessons, and performing was romanticized.  David’s playing would sound forced and unmusical and then the next moment, it would be nearly perfect.  Granted, a film can’t possibly show every step of the learning process, but I think it could have shown more realistic and gradual steps.
Shine’s portrayal of this pianist is the most absurd in the scene of David’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in London.  His curly hair becomes excessively damp with sweat, and the sound cuts out as we watch just his fingers move.  It’s like we’re viewing his mind work without hearing sound.  It was supposed to be dramatic, but it made me wonder if something was going wrong.  Was he having a breakdown and struggling to perform?  As it turned out, it was just a distracting dramatic effect.
In her article “Pianists in Movies,” Flo Leibowitz of Oregon State University also finds that the careers of musicians tends to be portrayed simplistically in movies.  She says that movies about the great composers tend to focus on “composing, not performing.”  In reality, musicians past and present wear many hats throughout their careers: we are performers, teachers, professors, researchers, managers, entrepreneurs, writers, composers, and more.
I think that La La Land successfully portrayed the struggle and joy of a music career without dramatizing it.  Sebastian, a jazz pianist, really wants to play music that he truly loves and is devoted to.  For him, that’s classic jazz, and he specifically wants to open his own jazz club as his venue for performing.  Along the way, he makes a pretty big break when he is invited to go on tour.  It pays quite well, but it’s not really the music he ultimately hopes to be playing.  But playing popular music can be a necessary and beneficial “compromise,” so to speak, for a classically trained pianist.  To bring what may be considered “stuffy” classical music to audiences, we need to cross some boundaries.  In La La Land, Sebastian chooses to make a compromise: he goes on tour, which is actually a really great opportunity for him even though it’s not playing the classic jazz that he really wants to.
Back in the nineties, The Piano movie soundtrack became immensely popular in Spain.   In an article heavy with statistics, Howell Llewellyn delves into how this happened, though it was not the sort of music that would have been expected to become popular.   “The Piano’ is a clear crossover between new age, classical, and pop,” says Garcia, of Virgin Records, the label that produced the soundtrack album.

While Shine may romanticize the aspects of practicing and performing, it does poignantly portray the power of music to help a person cope with mental illness.  David Helfgott developed a mental illness that made him socially incompetent and kept him from performing for many years.  After decades living in asylums, he eased back into performing by playing in restaurants and bars.  Eventually, he returned to the concert stage and has had a successful career.  It’s a riveting and inspiring comeback.  And though his mind is still addled with a mental illness that leaves him socially unstable and acting like a child, the same mind is able to produce incredible music.
In a similar fashion, piano music is what helped Szpilman (The Pianist) cope with the horrific ordeals he faced.  At multiple points in the film, he is seen “playing” music silently even though he has no instrument.  We see his fingers drumming mindlessly sometimes.  Often, it is during moments of most intense fear, pain, or vulnerability.  Once, his fingers play while he is on the train trying not to be noticed by the German soldiers who are only a few feet away.  Another time, he plays mentally during the ear-splitting bombings late at night.  Later, he continues to play music while, starved and feeble, he hides out in an abandoned Warsaw hospital.
Szpilman hid in Warsaw for a very long time with next to nothing to eat.  When he was found by a German officer, who spared him, he was a shadow of the man he had once been.  His speech was slow and labored, his physical exhaustion having led to mental numbness.  When the officer found a dilapidated piano nearby in the ruins, Szpilman sat down at the instrument and music flowed from his fingers – music that had stayed with him through all the physical ordeal he had been through.  https://youtu.be/jHfQCfUTlXE
Adrien Brody is the actor who played Szpilman  Brody went to unfathomable lengths to do justice to this role.  Not only did he give up his New York apartment, sell his car, and move to Paris to be in the movie, he starved himself down to 130 pounds to play the emaciated pianist who barely survived war-torn Warsaw.  Brody also took piano lessons to polish his musical ability, which in turn helped him relate to the character.  “During the time I was starving myself, the thing I was most comforted by was playing the music.  It calmed me and allowed me to some degree to distract myself from my own loneliness at the time.”
Brody wasn’t just acting.  He became Szpilman.  He entered his mind and experience as best he could.  In a similar fashion, pianists are actors.  We assume the lives of composers – past or present – on stage.  The music we make is their intimate, vulnerable, passionate, declamatory, and intense musings.  As Brody says, “Playing a real person, you have the obligation to do it the right way.”  That’s true whether playing a role or playing music.  I’m inspired to look into the background of the composers whose pieces I’m playing and try to get into their minds.  It’s a big responsibility to play the music of Brahms, Chopin, Schubert, and Bach – people who lived several hundred years ago.  I need to understand what was going on in their lives and minds so I can effectively present their music to audiences today.

Works cited

Primary Sources
Movie: The Pianist  2002 Directed by Roman Polanski and written by Ronald Harwood (original book by Wladyslaw Szpilman)
Movie: La La Land: 2016 written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Movie: Shine: 1996 written and directed by Scott Hicks and Jan Sardi
Secondary Sources
Adrien Brody pays his dues in ‘The Pianist’
Carla Meyer, Chronicle Staff Writer Sunday, December 29, 2002
Project Muse Volume 21, Number 2, October 1997: Pianists in the Movies, by Flo Leibowitz
Billboard. 106.18 (Apr. 30, 1994): p8:  Chart-topping ‘Piano’ is latest quiet surprise on Spain’s charts, by Howell Llewellyn


2 thoughts on “Pianists in Movies

  1. I like this post! I am also a pianist, which is what drew me to your post. I like how you analyze those three movies, all of them sound fascinating, and I would very much like to watch “The Pianist” now! I would have like to hear more from you and how you feel pianists are represented in the media. Do you identify with any of these movies more than others? How do you feel about these movies? Do you aspire to be like anyone in this movie? Great post, have a wonderful spring break!

  2. Hey Melissa,
    Really good post!! I like how you looked at three completely different roles of pianists in your sources. I think that goes to show how pianists can come from many different backgrounds, and they can incorporate their upbringing or personal experiences into their music in a way. The only movie out of the ones you discussed that I have seen is La La Land, but I thought it was a really good movie. I love piano, and even though I can’t play myself, I love to see people with actual talent using their gift. I think piano music is the most soothing and relaxing music out there!

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