First Run Features // 2010 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge P.S. Colbert // May 11th, 2013
"Can You Separate the Man From His Music?"
English actor-comedian Stephen Fry (Peter's Friends) first heard the music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883) on his father's Grammophone at age eleven or twelve. "It did something most extraordinary to me," he recalled. "I've always loved music, and I've always been hopeless at performing it; couldn't really play an instrument, certainly can't sing...But, it's made me do things inside -- it's released forces within me, and no music has done it like Wagner's."
Before seeing Wagner & Me, my own knowledge of the vaunted German composer and dramatist was pretty much limited to "Ride of the Valkyries," that aggressively arched operatic piece laid on over the grotesque helicopter assault in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and before that, the musical impetus for Looney Tunes bunny hunter Elmer Fudd to "kill the wabbit."
Also, there was some kind of Nazi connection, wasn't there? Hadn't he written top ten hits for Adolf and the boys? Didn't he once bully Woody Allen in a Manhattan record store, or summat?
This BBC documentary represents a personal odyssey and the culmination of a life-long dream for Fry, who begins by arriving in Bayreuth, the Southern German town where Wagner's Festspielhaus resides. Designed by Wagner himself, the colossal musical theatre complex annually hosts a Summer Festival dedicated to his works (average wait time for tickets: seven years).
"Well, for anyone who loves Wagner as I do, this place is Stratford-upon-Avon, Mecca, Graceland -- all rolled into one!" Fry giddily exclaims. "I'm trying to think of an equivalent. I suppose...Lord's Cricket Ground on the Thursday of an Ashes Test? Maybe the Cavern in Liverpool, if you're a Beatles fan..."
Having received an invitation to go behind closed doors as a new season takes shape, the awestruck Brit takes us on tour, raiding the prop closet and costume rooms, peeking in on rehearsals, and getting to know some of the key players, as he counts the minutes until opening night.
That is, if he can actually bring himself to attend.
"I'm Jewish -- lost relatives in the Holocaust," he explains. "So before I take my seat in Festival House, I need to feel sure I'm doing the right thing."
Given the composer-dramatist's famous association with the Third Reich, this can't be an easy decision to make. Though Wagner died six years before the birth of Adolf Hitler, the Führer made no secret of his passion for his work, virtually adopting it as the party's own official soundtrack. An annual patron of the Bayreuth summer festival (even through World War II), the Nazi leader was taken in with open arms by Wagner's descendants, and though Wagner was an avowed left-winger, there is the matter of his famous, decidedly anti-Semitic essay "Jewishness" in Music," wherein he discusses the "physical, visceral repulsion" he feels towards the Jews.
In order to better understand the man, and perhaps get some perspective on such matters, Fry endeavors to trace Wagner's footsteps, traveling to Switzerland and Russia along the way, thus treating himself (and us) to some of the most beautiful natural and architectural scenery ever seen. All the while, Wagner's music plays, making a case for itself by appealing directly to our ears.
Bravos to First Run Features for presenting a pristine 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, and sumptuous stereo sound that more than does the music justice. One quibble: no subtitles. While it's true that almost nobody this side of Simon Callow speaks English as correctly as Stephen Fry, his comments are occasionally buried under orchestral swells, robbing audiences of the full discourse of one of the wittiest men alive. There are previews of other First Run Features releases, but no bonus features.
I came across an interesting review by Boston Globe critic Ty Burr, who wrote: "To truly appreciate Wagner & Me, you have to cherish the music of Richard Wagner with the same quivering intensity as host Stephen Fry."
By the same token, I imagine Burr would reckon that in order to truly appreciate Citizen Kane one would have fully share director Orson Welles' personal views of William Randolph Hearst, and to truly appreciate the character of Hannibal Lecter, one would have to likewise enjoy dining on the liver of a troublesome Census taker, garnished with Fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Fair enough. Let's just say that my limited appreciation of Wagner & Me was more than compensated for by my immense enjoyment of it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated