In 1980, a performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto by the Bolshoi orchestra was stopped midway at Brezhnev’s behest. In 2009, the conductor of that concert (Aleksei Guskov)-now a janitor at the theater- finds an opportunity to recreate that concert, this time at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. All he has to do is a get an orchestra together and pretend to be a representative of the Bolshoi. First he gets a manager, than a financier, then a montage of gathering former orchestra members. He needs to convince a world renowned soloist (‘Inglourious Basterds’s Melanie Laurent) to headline the concert. Against all odds, he succeeds and puts on the concert. This is the story of the new French and Russian language film ‘The Concert’.
The film’s director, Radu Mihaileanu, directed the Holocaust-themed ‘Train of Life’ in 1998, and the Israeli film ‘Live and Become’ (‘תחיה ותהיה’) in 2005. He is a Romanian Jew, and there are a lot of gypsies and a lot of Jews in and from the former USSR in the film. With these characters, the film seems like it’s on the cusp of communicating personality at certain points, but it never quite makes it. Once the plot sets into motion, pleasant havoc ensues, with a great deal of stereotypes (jokes about Russians drinking, Gypsies being resourceful, Jews trying to get a bargain and French being rude and condescending). The film is very loosely inspired by real events, but is pitched as a chaotic Slavic comedy (It’s hard not to think of Kusturica at certain points) mixed with a sentimental weepy about the transformative power of art. Things fall into place very predictably.
Then the film’s lengthy finale comes, and one almost forgets the predictable chaos of the earlier part of the film. The climax of the film is the performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. The entire first movement is played, almost uninterrupted, and the inoffensive film is infused with a little bit more passion and spirit than its utterly pedestrian pedigree provides up to that point. This film believes in Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. It is almost beside the point if one shares that belief. What Mihaileanu creates in that final sequence is a heartfelt ode to populism. In a strange way, it’s an ode to the Soviet tradition of classical music- melodic, bombastic and accessible.
Many movies revolving around music don’t deserve the music they revolve around. Johnny Cash’s cinematic biography was identical to Ray Charles’, and neither was particularly notable. The Beatles deserve more inspiration than the literal minded good-intentions of ‘Across the Universe’. Beethoven certainly deserves better films than ‘Immortal Beloved’ and ‘Copying Beethoven’. The arc of ‘The Concert’ is similar to 95% of films about the ol’ group getting together for ‘one last concert’, (and just about every sports film, for that matter). Unlike many of those films, it knows this; it is not plagued by delusions of grandeur, not trying to live up to ‘The Rite of Spring’. It is trying to live up to a schmaltzy crowd-pleaser. I can’t say it fully succeeds even at that (its first hour is not unpleasant, but the rambling, cliché-ridden plot becomes tiresome), but it comes close in those final moments of kitsch that are passionate and moving. It’s in the same ballpark as the music it revolves around, and in its ending achieves something sublime simply by knowing its place. ‘The Concert’ is a movie revolving around music that has an actual tonal connection to the music it features, and that is a rare occasion indeed.