Elijah Wood didn’t exactly vanish after The Lord of the Rings came to its majestic conclusion, but with the exception of his voice work in things like Happy Feet, it’s fair to say he has stepped back from the sort of spotlight one might have expected him to enjoy. He certainly hasn’t been a Hollywood A-Lister. But he has still lent his talent to a number of good, but less well known offerings – Green Street, Bobby, Treasure Island – and that trend continues in this Spanish production that bypassed most during its brief theatrical run in the US last year and has only just become more widely available, via Netflix, in the last month (hence my classifying it as a 2014 film for my country).
Tom Selznick (Wood), a piano prodigy who infamously flamed out during an attempt to perform an “unplayable” piece written by his mentor, returns to the stage at a public concert for the first time in five years at the behest of his celebrity wife Emma (Kerry Bishe). As he begins to play, he discovers a message from someone (John Cusack) in the crowd, soon confirmed to be in deadly earnest, warning him to hit every note flawlessly, or he and his wife will be killed.
Greater discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review click here to go to The Write Club.
It is to be expected that Grand Piano will draw comparisons with Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth, films very similar in premise and style. Phone Booth was a simple yet highly effective thriller, driven on by the performance of its lead and the cackling voice in his ear, that worked as both a tension filled countdown to disaster and an exploration of a man’s inner nature and ability to lie to himself.
I think it is fair to say that Grand Piano doesn’t really measure up to Phone Booth in a lot of ways. There is a lot of good in the film, in the first hour or so, but after that point, as the plot starts to go off the rails and things get a little stretched, premise-wise, it becomes clear that Grand Piano is more about talking the talk of being a great movie, than walking the walk.
As stated, it starts well enough, the opening minutes a slow boil look at the titular instrument, apparently a fine example of the craft, being secured by a transportation company for its journey to a concert of major importance. That opening had some unexpected framing and musical choices, akin to a horror movie beginning, the discovery of the old instrument amid the brickabrack of this old man’s life meant to invoke feelings of dread and unease. From the outset, the piano is set-up as a thing to be worried about and to ponder over, hiding some sort of hidden power or dark secret.
Some of that is elaborated upon in the following scenes, as we get introduced to most of the relatively small cast. If Grand Piano has a major triumph, it’s that it is comfortable enough in itself to essentially devote the vast majority of the first act to a story away from the main plot, that is, simply introducing Selznick, his wife and their circumstances, a million miles away from the stuff that comes later. We learn very quickly, and without any terrible exposition dialogue, that Selznick is a talented pianist who has not appeared on stage for over five years, but has been coaxed out of his self-imposed exile for this particular concert for two reasons: one, it is in dedication to his deceased mentor, and two, his celebrity wife, a famous actress, is coaxing him into it.
You immediately understand some of the framing of the piano in the opening scene. It is a thing of dread, for Selznick anyway, having been humiliated at a key moment in his career trying to play it a few years ago. The first act of Grand Piano will not be about snipers, but about stage fright, and how Selznick tries to get himself to have the courage to go out onto the stage and play, despite all of the worry he has over the audiences’ expectation of his performance. The conversation with his wife at the airport, the irritating radio interview, the interactions with the orchestra’s composer, they all add effectively to that sense of Selznick facing into a defining moment in his life.
It’s also around there that we get introduced to the first detriment of Grand Piano, namely a sub-plot involving some of Emma’s vapid friends, who appear to be following on the coat-tails of her success and expecting free rides for that. I would imagine the purpose of this sub-plot, which features sub-par performances impacting on the actual action, is imply so that the entire film is not just 90 minutes of Wood, Cusack and occasionally Bishe on screen, as well as allowing for a little bit of levity. But I simply found it an annoying distraction, and was amazed when both of those characters were killed off in as quick and easy a manner as they were. What was the point? To emphasis to Selznick the peril he was in? I guess, but I did not feel as if a brutally upfront bit of violence was necessary to do that. In Phone Booth, Schumacher has “The Caller” shoot an anonymous pimp dead in a similar moment, but even that has a grander plot purpose in alerting the police to Colin Farrell’s situation – and implicating him by the stashing of a handgun in the titular booth. Grand Piano can’t really say that Ashley and Wayne perform the same function.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first act has plenty of tension before Cusack’s sniper even turns up, as Selznick faces into his requirement to actually take the stage. There are some great scenes in this section, like the good natured jokes at Selznick’s expense from the production team, Selznick being mildly embarrassed at being caught littering by the theatre’s janitor and the constant presence of Selznick’s mentor in the scope of things, through the enlarged images of his face staring down at his protégé, larger than life, taunting and challenging him in the same moment.
So, when Selznick finally does take his seat at the piano, we’re already swept up in the internal peril of his position. That’s what I liked initially about Grand Piano: there was a decent story to be told here long before any sniper turns up, a story about a man confronting his demons in the form of this concert, of trying to exercise some of his self-doubt and fears. That’s a tale I can get engaged with.
And then the turn comes. If you hadn’t known it was coming, you would have been stunned, but here are messages telling Selznick that any failure in his performance will result in death for both himself and his wife. There’s some nice mini set-up for this, as Selznick, playing competently up to that point, departs the stage to retrieve an ear-piece that will let him talk to the would-be killer directly, setting up much of what will follow.
With the “Movements” of the concert now matching up with the act structure, we settle in to the main crux, as Wood discusses things with the man holding a gun somewhere in the audience. I wouldn’t say that this sudden development is an unwelcome one, but it is certainly is a curve ball considering the kind of movie Grand Piano was forming up to be beforehand. The remainder of the first act, accompanied by some sweeping majestic music from the mind of composer Victor Reyes, is a matter of simply confirming to Selznick that the situation – and the danger – he is in, is very, very real.
The second act then is the so called “promise of the premise”, where everything becomes driven by the interaction between Selznick and the shooter. He waxes lyrical on the nature of exceptional people, drawing a direct comparison between Selznick and his wife. He talks about fairness, about expectation and about how Selznick has to prove himself. The pianist whimpers and tries to find a way out, even as he keeps playing, still leaving the stage at brief moments. This section starts the rot, but is still generally acceptable. The dialogue between the two leads is more than a little limp, with Wood doing his better work through facial expression and reaction, Cusack’s menace far better than the words he has to say. It’s a shame that the same kind of chemistry that Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland had in Phone Booth isn’t recreated, even though there are a few attempts for Cusack’s shooter to be the same kind of antagonist, liable to be a little warped and prone to dark humour. It just doesn’t work as well, and that’s a shame. Better is the visual direction of these moments, the swoops, the pans, the Dutch angles and the split screens, effectively creating a visual sense of Selznick’s panic and trapped position.
The violence directed towards the Ashley and Wayne characters is also here, a crescendo that comes at a critical moment in the musical performance, a well orchestrated piece of symphonic accompaniment that was better than the actual plot moment. It did allow Selznick to be doing more than just talking to the shooter, but was ultimately a little unfulfilling – maybe part of that was also the characterless usher who was assisting the shooter, just a nameless goon lacking any kind of real hook as an entity for the audience to be interested in.
The second act is a bit better with the topic of conversation moves to “La Cinquette”, the allegedly unplayable piece of music composed by Selznick’s mentor. It’s the monster under the bed for Selznick, the piece that ruined his career and self-belief. And, lo and behold, it is the piece that the shooter wants him to play at the conclusion.
At this point, you would probably think that we are heading into the same territory as Phone Booth, where the antagonist is revealed to be some sort of twisted guardian angel, trying to get people to change their ways in as extreme a manner as possible. Maybe the shooter just wants Selznick to play to the best of his ability because he is trying to do him a favour.
But no. Grand Piano takes a different path, and suddenly it has become a heist film. This is the going off the rails moment I mentioned earlier, as the shooter suddenly decides to outline the real reason he has Selznick in such a position, and it’s simply bonkers. For the benefit of people who haven’t seen it and don’t care about spoilers:
-the shooter is actually a locksmith by profession.
-Selznick’s deceased mentor, a fabulously rich man whose fortune is indicated to have vanished in mysterious circumstances earlier in the film, commissioned this locksmith to construct a very special safe for him.
-The safe is embedded within the grand piano that Selznick is actually playing at that moment.
-The safe will only open if the last four bars of “La Cinquette” is played flawlessly on it.
-The safe contains the only access to the mentor’s vast fortune, somehow.
-The shooter has decided that this exact situation is the best way for him to gain access to this fortune.
Not, say, kidnapping Selznick and getting him to play the four bars repeatedly until its played correctly, a possibility the shooter actually mocks even though it would make a hell of a lot more sense than the actual plan he goes for. Why the song and dance? Why make the heist so public? How will the shooter actually get the key when it is released? Why the murders? Why not just steal the piano, surely that would have been less risky? And how the hell do you design a safe to be embedded in a pre-existing piano that will open when those exact notes are played?
It is at this point that Grand Piano fails my “Inception Test”, its plot holes no longer capable of being ignored, now dragging down the film to a sub-par level of quality. This premise is simply too ridiculous, even more ridiculous than the guardian angel idea, and we are expected to follow along with this going into the last act. Grand Piano becomes a “turn off your brain” film, far removed from the more interesting thing it had the potential to be earlier.
There is then a double tension for the last act, as Selznick prepares to face down the shooter, but also prepares to give “La Cinquette” another shot, with his life on the line this time, rapidly scrambling to get the notes of the piece scribbled down from a recording. As you might expect from everything that I have written so far, it is the latter that intrigued me far more than the former, a resolution upcoming for the entire point of most of the first act, Selznick confronting the source of his stage fright. Before this, Selznick does get some face time with his wife, just to remind us of the stakes, an effective little distraction.
And so, “La Cinquette”, which Selznick performs his own way, ignoring the words and taunts of the shooter, whose location Selznick has managed to figure out. It’s the moment of reversal in power, as Selznick accepts what he has to do and plays on through the fear, completing the piece with vigour and panache. Crucially, he then chooses to play the wrong note to finish the piece, suddenly realising that even this audience will not be able to tell the difference when it comes to “La Cinquette”, bringing his own sub-plot of facing his fears and his over-reliance on the audiences approval to a well rounded close.
And then the actual finale, which veers away into traditional action movie filler, Selznick and the shooter actually grappling on the catwalk above the stage, dangling from ropes and edges like they are Pierce Brosnan and Sean Bean. It’s another dramatic swerve in tone and plot, and a rather disappointing one, the final one really. Selznick defeats the shooter, miraculously surviving their double fall on to the stage, the piano left wrecked in the act, as ridiculous a moment as Grand Piano offers up.
There’s still time for an overly-extended epilogue, as the bodies are carted away and Selznick approaches the grand piano of his mentor one last time. It all seemed rather superfluous to me – Wouldn’t whatever the piano was hiding be revealed when it was smashed up? – an unnecessary addendum to Selznick’s arc. He plays “La Cinquette” again and reveals the key. A sudden cut to black is more unsatisfactory than fulfilling, the deeper mystery of Grand Piano lost long beforehand, with no time left for director Eugenio Mira to reach back to the better movie he was overseeing nearer the beginning.
In terms of female characters, apart from the unpleasant Ashley, Grand Piano only has one, Selznick’s wife Emma. While she didn’t get much time I did quite like her as a character, the supportive wife distressed by the lack of notice her husband gets relative to herself, a disappointment that his talents go unrecognised. That seemed like something a significant other would be like in that situation, and was a direct contrast with the false image that the shooter tried to engender in Selznick’s mind, of a jealous spouse orchestrating events for her own publicity. She supports and encourages her husband, more than she really knows as we head into the finale, and while that means she is somewhat subservient to him in plot terms, it still sort of worked within the confines of this limited cast.
Before moving onto themes, I feel it would be appropriate to take a moment to mention again the music of Victor Reyes, which really is one of Grand Piano’s biggest assets. There is a wonderful scope in all of it, from the bombastic to the more quiet, from the simple to the complex. The “First Movement”, in particular, is a really grandiose piece of extended music that varies widely in theme and power, fitting in well to the action on screen. “La Cinquette” is a funny piece alright, seemingly discordant tones mixing together to form a greater whole by the conclusion. And then there is the closing number, “A Motherless Child”, performed by Alice Ella in the form of Bishe, that provides some excellent backing sounds to the final confrontation between Selznick and the shooter.
So, themes. The obvious candidate, and the only theme that I will discuss in detail here, which I have alluded to a bit already, is one of self-worth and dealing with expectations, a duel theme that defines the journey that the Selznick character goes on. Five years ago his self-worth was destroyed by his failure to live up to the legacy of his mentor. Now he returns to the stage, petrified at the thought of failing again, worried about the judgement of the audience, feeling every ounce of the pressure from within and without.
Through the course of the film, Selznick is put in a position where he must confront those demons. He has the talent to give a commendable performance of the night’s program, but that just isn’t going to be enough. The voice in his ear wants more, talking about Selznick’s exceptional ability, and the fact that he has been willing to hide that ability for so long.
In taking on the shooter in this game of wits and verbal sparring, Selznick gains back a measure of his self-confidence, becoming more decisive and sure of himself in the face of the imminent danger to his own life and, to a greater degree, his wife. This involves confronting the shooter directly and being willing to sacrifice his body – potentially his life – to stop him at the conclusion, but also simply involves tackling that demon in his past, the terrible complexity of “La Cinquette”.
Selznick does so, performing the piece to near perfection. It’s only as he goes to play the last note, that echoing denouement, that he realises his fears of the audiences harsh expectations were largely groundless: he plays the wrong note to end the piece, and the audience applauds with vigour anyway, not realising that an error has been made. Selznick’s fears of being less than perfect were all in his mind. In the end, he is an exceptional enough pianist that he can make mistakes and not have to endure criticism for it, because even when those mistakes are made he is still a greater performer than the vast majority of others who work with the same instrument. That liberation of thought allows him to reject the shooter’s demands that he play the piece flawlessly, and then allows him to defeat the shooter directly.
In conclusion, I must come back to my comparison with Phone Booth. Phone Booth is the better film I think, because it has enough faith in its premise to see it through to the end, and the right kind of twisted motivation for its antagonist, that it also allows to remain true right to the end. It does not fall back on deliberately open ended conclusions, or unnecessary sub-plots for minor characters. Grand Piano has similar ideas but balks when the point comes for the whole thing to be put to the test, turning into a more traditional action thriller with the cast dangling over chasms and throwing punches to round out the experience. Grand Piano had the chance to be something truly great, one of the films of the year if I’m being honest, and sort of botched that chance through its own lack of self-belief in what it could be – somewhat ironic, given the plot of the film itself.
It does have a fine performance from its lead actor, some great visual direction and a truly stellar effort from its composer, which is why I’m still inclined to view Grand Piano favourably. But that failure of the last act is a regrettable negative, combined with the usually stale dialogue and unpalatable sub-plots. A great first hour leads to a poor last half hour, and while you will find it entertaining, and even a little captivating, Grand Piano is ultimately a bit forgettable. A good 90 minute distraction, but little more.
(All images are copyright of Magnet Releasing).