When Judge Eric Profancik copied Beethoven, he was sent to detention. If only he'd copied someone obscure like Hildegard Von Bingen!
"My God, you're deafer than I thought."
I'm a classical music fan, with a strong preference to the Classical and Romantic genres. I don't get into the old Baroque or Renaissance stuff, and most of the modern stuff doesn't appeal to me. As such, Mozart and Beethoven are two of my favorite composers, Amadeus and Immortal Beloved are two of my favorite movies, and I know a thing or two about these guys. So any disc that comes along with a vaguely musical title is a potential new favorite. Copying Beethoven seemed to have a shot at that, even though I had some mild trepidation about its central plot device. That trepidation turned into sheer frustration.
Facts of the Case
Word is sent out that the best copyist is needed in Vienna. It's the week of the premier of Ludwig van Beethoven's (Ed Harris, The Hours) Ninth Symphony, and the score is nowhere near ready for the orchestra and chorus. With only four days to spare, student copyist Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger, National Treasure) arrives to work on the messy score. But she's a woman, and Beethoven doesn't want anything to do with her. Undaunted by his well-known temper, Anna earns Beethoven's trust and helps him get his score ready for this momentous event.
The two find solace with each other. Anna sees Beethoven as a brilliant mentor, a man who can teach her so much as she dreams of being a composer. Beethoven sees Anna as someone he can finally trust, a young woman with a special insight into music. After the premier, the two continue their work together. While this complicates Anna's life outside the maestro, Beethoven becomes ill and is near death.
There are innumerable problems when it comes to making movies about composers. For the most part, they aren't that popular. People aren't interested in the life and times of composers from hundreds of years ago. Clearly there are exceptions—Amadeus leading the pack—but most find niche audiences. Beyond that, life usually isn't that interesting, whether it's me, you, Einstein, or Beethoven. How much of a proposed movie should be fact and how much embellishment should there be?
These two sides come together when trying to bring such a film to a broader audience. To make a broad, widely appealing film, fiction is sprinkled around the truth in an attempt to make someone's life more interesting. It happened in Amadeus; it happened in Immortal Beloved; it happened in Impromptu; and it very much happened in Copying Beethoven. Normally I'm not put off by the fictionalized biopic, but this time, the made up bits were insulting; the fiction in Copying Beethoven made me abhor this movie.
There's no easy way to say how insulted I am by this story. The central plot device is Anna Holtz, a completely fictional character, coming to assist Beethoven in the final years of his life. Beethoven was brilliant and didn't need any help (except with his manners and tempers). Thinking the maestro's life needed this crutch to convey his genius is ludicrous, belittling his monumental contribution to the world of music. There is no reason for Anna Holtz except to modernize the story in an attempt to appeal to younger audiences. It is clearly a mistake. The copyist does several things that tarnish the life of the real composer. First, she finds a "mistake" on his score for the Ninth Symphony. Anna, a young student, finds a wrong key transcription on his score? A wrong key that Beethoven himself would not have discovered, and later chastises himself over greatly once pointed out? No, this is an enormous fallacy, as Beethoven labored years over this score. He was intimately familiar with it and never would have made such an obvious error, let alone have it pointed out to him at the last minute by such a novice.
Yet that is not the worst of it. Historical fallacy and Hollywood incompetence collide during the premier of the symphony. Beethoven did not conduct the first public performance of this work. He could not because he was absolutely and completely deaf. There's no way a deaf man could conduct such a demanding score without being able to hear a single note. But here's Beethoven, demanding to be at the front of the stage leading the musicians. More insulting is that Beethoven realizes his weakness, leading us to the second big mistake: Anna volunteers to "hide" within the orchestra to help him keep tempo and conduct. Rubbish! Again, this musical waif is going to tell Beethoven how to conduct his own work? This is ridiculous beyond all measure. It takes years to learn how to conduct, let alone this particular symphony. More importantly, it's insulting to think Beethoven would need help to do such a thing—if we completely ignore the fact that he never did it in the first place. Granted, history shows us he stood on stage next to the actual conductor, but Beethoven himself never conducted such a work.
Copying Beethoven completely forgot about history, especially the maestro's deafness. In scene after scene Beethoven is easily able to understand anyone around him. He either is a master lip reader, or he actually can hear something when they shout at him. That's the sad irony of Beethoven's life: a man with such incredible musical gifts was robbed of the one sense needed to appreciate what he could do. His masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony, was composed and played without him ever hearing a single note.
And this is still not the end of what's wrong with this movie. Copying Beethoven is a vulgar, brutish movie that exhibits no subtlety. Everything is painstakingly spelled out for the audience. You're given no room to infer or make your own connections. They lead you by the hand through this silly tale of theirs. Beethoven is known for his temper, but the man in this film is beyond mean. He's ruthless and devilish; insincere and rude. It's hard to specifically point out what's off, but the character just feels wrong. You can't believe this Beethoven has any friends or is a brilliant composer.
Is that the script's fault? The direction? Yes to both. You can't tell a credible story about Beethoven when you get the facts and the character wrong on the page. Director Agnieszka Holland can't turn water into wine, so it's not entirely her fault; yet she is still accountable as the last word. But perhaps the biggest problem is that I could never, ever believe that Ed Harris was Beethoven. He was an actor playing a part. He didn't look it, he didn't act it, and he was more of a distraction. He wasn't Beethoven. Yet Ed Harris isn't the only person with a bad performance; everyone lacked passion and solid commitment to character. On top of all this, let's throw in way too many anachronistic thoughts, words, and actions! And, come on, if you can't at least say "LudVig" and not "LudWig," it's all over.
When all is said and done, Copying Beethoven is a boring and ridiculous insult to the real Ludwig van Beethoven.
Things don't get too much better as we segue to the transfers. For the first time in many years, I saw a bad transfer. This 2006 film, sporting a 2.35:1 anamorphic print, is riddled with several significant errors. There's major aliasing in some scenes featuring cobblestone streets; there's an odd purple "ghost shimmer" floating above the score in one scene; a few scenes have the color completely washed out, turning almost gray at times; and a few other scenes have massive color shifts from warm red to stark green. These are sporadic errors and not constant distractions. Regardless, these mistakes are inexcusable and should not have made it through final inspection. The scenes free from these imperfections have rich colors, excellent contrast, and enough detail to see the vintage locations and costumes. Much better is the Dolby Digital 5.1 transfer, with a rich, encompassing mix. The soundtrack comes alive during Beethoven's music, making you feel you are there. Dialogue is easy to hear without distortion. A few times the track was bass-heavy and the music balance was too loud.
The DVD comes with just three bonus features. Starting it off is a commentary with Ed Harris and director Holland. I tried to listen to it, but found the track boring. They were talking about the movie—what they were watching—instead of what went into the movie. It also appears the two were recorded separately, making the commentary track disjointed. Next is a ten-minute featurette called "Orchestrating Copying Beethoven." The name implies it is about the conductor used to record Beethoven's music for the movie, but it's actually about filming the scenes involving an orchestra/ensemble playing his music. (No new recordings were made for the film; existing recordings were used instead.) Last up are five deleted scenes (8.5 minutes) with a play all feature and optional commentary by Holland.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No matter how bad this movie may be, one thing exists to give it a small measure of redemption: Beethoven's music. Whenever the score swells up to command the scene, you are moved and held breathless by its passion and power. When that famous chorale and "Ode to Joy" begins, you can feel your heart racing with joy itself.
Copying Beethoven, from a historical standpoint, doesn't get the music right either. They failed to use recordings with historical instruments. So instead of having an authentic 19th century sound, you have a 20th century one instead. But where it goes right is that the premier of the Ninth Symphony, the crux of the film, is given nearly fourteen minutes of time. Though you may be seething in anger watching that whelp Anna help Beethoven conduct, you still get to luxuriate in the masterpiece and revel in the music itself. (And I won't hold this one against the movie since nobody ever does this right, but the first public performance of the Ninth Symphony was far from perfect, replete with errors. Nonetheless, the audience loved it and did give Beethoven a standing ovation.)
Beethoven is spinning in his grave because of this movie. Wild historical inaccuracies tainted the movie. If it wasn't the fiction, it was the acting. If it wasn't the acting, it was the anachronisms. If it wasn't the modern allusions in a historical picture, it was something else. From any angle, Copying Beethoven doesn't work. I cannot recommend it at all. If you are interested in such a film, though far more challenging, try Immortal Beloved instead. The script, the acting, the score, and everything else is what a movie about Beethoven should be.
Copying Beethoven is hereby found guilty of fraud and slander.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Ed Harris and Director Agnieszka Holland
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