Friday 13 December 2013

THE WAGNER FILES - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Imagining such a film by Ken Russell instead of this clown.

Something tells me phones didn't exist
during the mid-19th century.
Docu-bio-pic on composer Richard Wagner offers unconventional glimpse into a sordid life that spawned some of the greatest music ever written.

The Wagner Files (2013) **
Dir. Ralf Pleger Starring: Samuel Finzi, Pegah Ferydoni

Review By Greg Klymkiw

There's nothing dreadful about this extended music video documentary bio-pic of Richard Wagner, but then again, there's not much that's good about it either. Utilizing dramatic recreations - none of which are rooted in the 19th Century, but stylized 20th Century facsimiles - director Ralf Pleger patchwork-quilts the whole affair with computer graphics, talking heads of Wagner experts, dollops of animated graphic novel images (which, Pleger clearly thinks are clever) and a cornucopia of staggering topographical visuals all of which are set to Wagner's glorious compositions.

On the plus side, many of the experts called upon to opine and/or furnish biographical details are genuinely passionate and even entertaining as they deliver the actual narrative of the man whose music ("Ride of the Valkyries") is oft-remembered for its inclusion during Francis Coppola's helicopter attack sequence in Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately, it's Pleger's half-baked indulgences that get in the way. We learn that Wagner was a cheat, thief, liar, anarchist, revolutionary, virulent anti-semite and philanderer who required cross-dressing to inspire his act of composing great works of art. We get to follow the jolly little fellow as he tears about Europe trying to establish his career, dodge creditors and law enforcement officials.

The movie certainly gives us a decent enough portrait of the more lurid aspects of his life - which, are admittedly quite entertaining, but we never really get a genuine sense of the mad genius who, in spite of his clear failings as a human being, managed to write some of the most exquisite pieces of music ever wrought. Pleger, however, appears annoyingly self-satisfied with his attempts at stylistic flourishes, that by the end of the film, we get a sense of the keystones that marked Wagner's life, but absolutely none of the genuine passion, flair and invention he must surely have possessed as a musical prodigy. Ah, Ken Russell, where were you when we needed you the most?

Watching the film one imagines how exquisitely the late Ken Russell might have handled this material. Though oft-criticised for his over-the-top, wildly surreal film biographies of Tchaikovsky, Mahler and, among many others, Franz Liszt, I've always felt Ken Russell still managed to convey his love for the music. Though he bent the facts in order to extol the artistic virtues and lives of the composers he chose to immortalize on film, one also got - albeit perversely - numerous details of their lives. I suspect nobody will ever forget Tchaikovsky conducting the 1812 Overture in The Music Lovers as canons fire rounds at individuals in the Russian composer's life, resulting in a series of exploding heads, or the clearly mad notion that Wagner stole all his music from Franz Liszt in the magnificently goofy Liszt-O-Mania and, given Pleger's unremarkable flights of fancy with respect to Wagner's relationship with his second wife Cosima Wagner, one needs only recall the image of Cosima adorned in swastika-emblazoned S&M garb in Mahler as she leads the Jewish composer through an inspired fantasia involving his conversion to Christianity - cracking her whip, licking her lips and thrusting her steel-kickered pelvis as Mahler leapt through flaming hoops with Star of David centres.

Pleger's attempts at revisionist imagery are dull and unimaginative.

Wagner enthusiasts might well enjoy this film, but I suspect the rest of us will sit through it and try to imagine how a real filmmaker, like Ken Russell, might have tackled the life of Richard Wagner - with genuine passion, aplomb and madness as opposed to Pleger's geek-boy gymnastics.

"The Wagner Files" plays theatrically at Toronto's Carlton Cinemas via Vagrant Films."