What: Film Review
Directed and Written by: Christopher Wilkinson
Produced by: Lori Miller
Edited by: Gabriel Wrye
Featuring: Vadym Kholodenko, Sean Chen, Alessandro Deljavan, Fei-Fei Dong, Steven Lin, Beatrice Rana, Leonard Slatkin
Running Time (in min.): 87 minutes
Languages: English, Italian with English subtitles, Russian with English subtitles
Rating: Not Rated
Editor’s Note: Virtuosity is available for purchase on Blu-ray and DVD, and for download on iTunes. The editor would like to thank Carol Eisner for her contribution to this article.
My father’s father, whom I never met, was a classically-trained pianist. Able to reach tenths with ease and to train his son to do same, Morris Malin – a longtime radio employee – considered music a passion, a job, and a hobby, all in one. This spirit carried itself into my dad, who studied the piano at Stony Brook University and continues to write original works today for the keyboard and synthesizers. A devotee of everything from Tchaikovsky to Genesis to Fleet Foxes, he tried with aplomb to push me towards the family instrument, hiring professionals to teach me the piano at age 4.
When I turned 18, I stopped playing immediately for two reasons: I had never had a natural skill for playing music, only the gift of memorization, and I felt with every single keystroke like an impostor; and I was going to college in San Francisco to study films, which began to absorb first five, then seven or more hours of every day. I simply had no time for an instrument at which I was only proficient, despite fifteen years of practice, practice, practice. No matter my efforts or discipline, I had never achieved expertise, nor acquired anything near what we might call a passion for playing.
In the Oscar®-nominated screenwriter Christopher Wilkinson’s [Oliver Stone’s Nixon, the upcoming Pawn Sacrifice] new documentary, Virtuosity, now airing on PBS affiliates around the country, my greatest passion – film – and my father’s, and his father’s – the piano – coalesce. Wilkinson, who wrote and directed with Lori Miller producing, set out to track the 14th Annual Cliburn Competition in Fort Worth, TX, where the world’s best and most devoted young pianists fight for professional and personal anchorage in the classical music world. The filmmakers, shooting in 2013, speak to the competitors before and after the competition, each of whom practices for as long as they sleep every day, and each of whom considers piano-playing a passion, a job, and a hobby, all in one.
As a lapsed musician-cum-busy film critic, you could say that Virtuosity has particular meaning for me – which would be an understatement. Wilkinson’s direction and Gabriel Wrye’s astounding editing seem built for me, an outsider looking back at what could have been without the distress of loss. But in fact, on reflection, the doc captures an ultimately universal story: students from small-town America, suburban Italy, remote Russia, and god-knows-where play their hearts out for a simple recording contract. These are human beings in the age of Hollywood and the record player as they’ve always been, desperate to have others see and hear them, if only to say, “Nice work.” Natural, then, that the film screened around the country to praise over the last year before landing on public television – it’s a film about everyone.
But, film “review” that this is, let’s not obscure the very specific humans Wilkinson and his collaborators focus on, for their backgrounds and personalities are deeply interesting. Among the competitors, there are the wunderkinds like Italy’s Beatrice Rana and the U.S.’s Sean Chen, both somewhat bombastic and edgy pianists, both considered frontrunners for First Place. My favorite was another Italian, Alessandro Deljavan, whose outrageous facial expressions had lost him the competition once before appearing in the film. Deljavan, a comically wide-eyed former footballer, introduces Wilkinson to his tiny mother’s tiny house at one point, and suddenly, we see just why this man has committed his life to musical recording (Deljavan has, at this time, released several classical recordings to significant acclaim). Then there’s Vadym Kholodenko, whose louse of a father is attending the Cliburn Competition after twenty years disappeared; Fei-Fei Dong, an eloquent and tender player who weeps to her own performances; and the forceful Steven Lin, who practices eight hours of every day.
Wrye and Wilkinson wisely intercut the performers’ interviews with the competition, but the pacing is intentionally erratic, a symphony of emotional ups and downs mirroring those experienced by the musicians. As some of them explain, winning the Cliburn means a possibly eternal security wherein touring, recording, and composing all become immediately available. The film treats competitiveness like a side-effect to humility (with the notable exception of one particularly arrogant man), an emotion mitigated by mutuality and respect for the other performers. Underlying Wrye’s swift, tight cuts, a rollercoaster of tension and artistic satisfaction, is a natural question: would the world’s greatest saxophonists feel this same respect? Would the greatest soccer players? Or the greatest filmmakers?
Winding around these emotional uncertainties, Wilkinson, Wrye, and Miller find elegance in the pianists’ pain, the suppleness of which reminded me of my own childhood, my father’s, and my late father’s father’s. The stress of this life seemed gargantuan to me as a teenager; now, as someone with passion in my life, the piano seems simply like a different instrument than my own (cinema). Larry McConkey’s alternately black-and-white and color photography only accented this familiarity for me – for how else would I see my mythologized grandpa, but in monochrome? – in addition to being surprisingly shiny and pretty (especially for a public broadcast documentary [no offense meant!]) Less the niche obscurity than its piano-loving audience might consider it at first, Virtuosity is a sort of Spellbound for the passionate, and those with similar passions to my own should consider finding it on their local PBS affiliate. If you’re reading this, my guess is: you fit the mold.