Film Review: Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

The chilly enigma that is the meaning of composer Glenn Gould's life gets a thoughtful but perhaps too respectful consideration in this layered, slightly overlong documentary.

Loneliness blows like a bracingly cold wind through Genius Within, Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont's documentary about the life of composer Glenn Gould, whose fate it was forever to have his profession modified by either "Canadian" or "eccentric" or both. The film is awash in images of Gould walking, pondering, playing—even in the midst of others, while performing as part of an orchestra or putting together one of his radio documentaries, his whole being screams of the solitary. It makes for a tough subject, one that the filmmakers aren't fully able to grapple with.

The striking rise of Gould as a young prodigy are delivered thrillingly in the film's opening stretches. Handily edited sequences show the floppy-haired pianist with the intense mien stalking recording studios in New York, where he made his U.S. debut at the age of 22. Gould's strikingly bright, angelic take on Bach's Goldberg Variations becomes a bestseller, all the more surprising for how deconstructive his method was. The dazzling lightness of his approach is studied in detail, those lilting fingers and his way of getting inside a well-known piece only to break it down into component parts and rebuild it in ways never before heard. It's all so convincingly delivered that it's entirely believable when musician Vladimir Ashkenazy tells the story of Gould's appearance at a half-empty concert hall in Moscow in 1957: Not long after he started playing, people were rushing out to call their friends and demand they come to see this genius; by the halfway point, the hall was filled to bursting with enraptured listeners.

Classical film prodigies are rare enough commodities, but handsome, charming, avant-garde prodigies with easily recognizable quirks (his strangely low-sitting, custom-made piano chair, the ever-present gloves, scarf and hat) are almost unheard of. The combination of Gould's stunning rise to fame and the height of America's postwar fascination with middlebrow high culture of the Leonard Bernstein-curated variety (not surprisingly, Bernstein conducted one of Gould's most infamous and controversial concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1961) made for a potent mix, and one that Gould could have ridden to even greater fame and wealth. But Gould, whose anxieties never quite adjusted to the demands of live performances, left the concert stage forever in 1962, retiring back to a quieter Toronto life of radio documentaries and recordings.

The themes that Hozer and Raymont introduce briefly at the film's start, that music "shelters you from the world" and that his playing of a particular piece was so busy and convoluted that it sounded "like a duet played with yourself," come more to the fore in the film's second half. The exploration here is less of Gould the artist and more of Gould the man. The interviews shift from fellow musicians or appreciators to more family members and friends, while the visuals change from professional stills of the man at work in concert halls to snapshots or home movies of the man at rest at his lakeside retreat or busy noodling away in his CBC studio.

Strangely, instead of bringing us closer to Gould the man, this shift in tone takes us further away from him. For a man so obsessed with his work, and who seemed more proud of his post-concert accomplishments—the sections heard of his radio work are impressive indeed, thoughtful and impressionistic—than of his more celebrated early recordings, the comparatively short shrift given to it is hard to comprehend.

Hozer and Raymont's film might be one that overstays its welcome near the end, but it stands nevertheless as a well-considered appreciation of a multifaceted artist too often reduced to a well-marketed stereotype of antisocial eccentricity.