7 Great Films About Pianists

My last review focused on a cellist who was forced to abandon his chosen profession and resort to a more undesirable one. This got me thinking about musicians in films, and I am presenting below seven great films that focus on pianists, their lives and struggles. While some pianists below are completely fictional, such as Ada in The Piano or Tom in The Talented Mr. Ripley, others are based on real-life people, including David Helfgott in Shine and Mozart in Amadeus. In no particular order:

I. The Piano (1993)

It is one of those rare movies that is not just about a story, or some characters“, said once film critic Roger Ebert, “but about a whole universe of feeling“. Set in the 19th century, Jane Campion’s very fine film tells the story of a psychologically-mute Scottish woman Ada who travels to New Zealand with her young daughter Flora after an arranged marriage. Ada’s passion for music and for hand-crafted piano is touching in the film as she has to face strict social conventions in a foreign land while also longing for the love that is genuine and freely-chosen. The film also has one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever, composed by Michael Nyman.

II. The Pianist (2002)

This film is based on the autobiographical book The Pianist (1946) that tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman. Masterful and unforgettable in every way, the film by Polanski is all about one Jewish man hiding in apartments across Warsaw as the Nazis brutal, evil regime is set to hunt down and kill every remaining Jewish person in the city. The film emphasises the sheer beauty of the piano music, and how it has the power to transcend life, bring out the best in humanity and unite it.

III. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

In this French film, Romain Duris (Chinese Puzzle (2013)) is Tom Seyr, a city crook leading a life of crime and ruthlessness in a gritty city. Surprisingly though, he longs for an entirely different life and dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Can his growing relationship with his beautiful teacher change the heart of once violent man? This remake of the American film Fingers (1978) has a heart-felt theme, that of a man’s desire to change himself against all odds, some decent acting and is scored by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water (2017)).

IV. Shine (1996)

This film is inspired by the real life of David Helfgott, an Australian pianist who suffered a mental breakdown during his life and was even confined to a number of mental institutions. Played by Geoffrey Rush, Helfgott returns to piano after years of professional absence, but at what cost? Shine is an inspirational, criminally underseen film that is one of the very best from the year 1996. Also, isn’t this one of the most surprising piano scenes in cinema?

V. The Piano Teacher (2001)

Based on the 1983 novel The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, this film may not be an easy-watch exactly, but it is quite unflinching in its portrayal of the intense passion and sexual repression. In this story, one young man becomes romantically involved with his older piano teacher. The director is also no other than Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon (2009), Amour (2012)), and the lead role is played by the incomparable Isabelle Huppert (Elle (2016)).

VI. Amadeus (1984)

How to define this film? Crazy, entertaining. It tells of the musical and other exploits of the greatest musician of all times – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his life, success and troubles, as told by Antonio Salieri, his contemporary and also a composer. Jealousy and intrigues run high in this adaptation and hints on murder abandoned. Blending fact and fiction, and having splendid visuals and strong performances (especially that of F. Murray Abraham), this film also has the distinction of receiving the honour of eight Academy Awards in 1985.

VII. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

This film may be an odd one to see here because it is not about a career of a musician at all, but an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel that focuses on impersonations, mistaken identities and crime. However, directed by the great Anthony Minghella (The English Patient (1996)), this adaptation makes Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) a part-time pianist who does other odd jobs here and there…until he meets the powerful father of Dickie Greenleaf who persuades him to visit his son and “bring him home”. Ripley’s innate love for classical music is then contrasted with Dickie’s passion for the “insolent noise”, as it is called in the film, – uncontrolled, free-style jazz. Music is also everywhere in this film, from a very jazzy version of My Funny Valentine to the opera Eugene Onegin. All this makes for a truly great film that was also scored by Gabriel Yared, and among its stars includes Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Talking about music in general in films now, it is also impossible not to mention Damien Chazelle, whose Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) focus on musicians and their very big ambitions and dreams. Another film that impressed me in recent years was A Late Quartet (2012) that is about a famous string quartet that face disintegration due to one of its member’s terminal illness, as well as because of uneasy inter-relationships and misunderstandings. Do you have a favourite film about musicians? What “music” film comes to your mind?

27 thoughts on “7 Great Films About Pianists

  1. Can I suggest La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006) by Denis Decourt with Catherine Frot as the concert pianist who foolishly mistreats a budding conservatoire student? Déborah François returns years later as her ‘page turner’ and with vengeance as her goal. Terrific film.

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  2. I missed The Piano first time around, but I bought the DVD a few years ago, and I could see why Hunter and Paquin won their Oscars, they were absolutely brilliant in this movie. For me, Holly gives perhaps the greatest performance of her career without even saying one word. Likewise, Paquin gives one of the greatest child performances I’ve ever seen in any movie.

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    1. I very much agree! Hunter and Paquin are phenomenal in the film, very much deserving of their awards. I’ve read that Isabelle Huppert was a strong contender for the lead role, but I am so happy that the role went to Hunter. The whole movie, including the casting, is pure perfection.

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    1. Indeed ‘Four Minutes’ would be my other pick. It needs to be much better known in the UK. Watch out too for the new Nina Hoss film ‘The Audition’ (Germany 2019), due to be released in the UK soon I think. Not a piano teacher this time but a violin tutor and something of the same feel as ‘Four Minutes’.

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  3. The Piano is one of the most stunning films of all time…isn’t it! I can’t get enough of that film and agree with Eberts statement you put here about it being a ‘universe of feeling’, that soundtrack is a really emotional and beautiful journey. Quite a masterpiece. I have seen all of these except for Amadeus, it sounds a bit weird and not something I would get into but would give it a go. The Talented Mr Ripley was also highly underrated but a very great film too. Thank you for this list, what a cool idea! Take care xx

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  4. Another great themed post. A friend just asked me the other night if I had seen “Amadeus” We were discussing One Flew Over the Cuckoos nest (both directed by Milos Forman) So it came up. It sounds like a crazy, entertaining one, as u said, that is hard to define.

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  5. Love these choices, especially The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Very underrated. If the list also includes neat thrillers that happen to feature the instrument, I’d add Grand Piano. 😉

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