Film Review: Pianomania

A too-dry approach and a lack of actual music renders this documentary strictly for nerds obsessed with the keyboard.

Stefan Knüpfer, the central figure in Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis' Pianomania, is a man on a very definite mission. This ultimate piano expert is on a one-year quest to find the perfect instrument for Pierre-Laurent Aimard's recording of Bach's Art of the Fugue. Although a piano tuner employed by Steinway, he is so much more, an actual artistic collaborator with the pianists themselves. The simple layman could simply never know of the myriad considerations which go into the selection of the perfect piano, all those considerations of tone and timbre, as well as surrounding conditions of temperature and space.

Pianomania follows Knüpfer as he globe-trots, offering his expertise to other celebrated keyboardists, like Lang Lang (who does a snatch of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody), with their varied personalities and idiosyncrasies.

One of the major joys of documentaries is how, through their detailed observation, one can become fascinated by the most arcane subjects. Surprisingly rare are the docs which can only be recommended to the specific cognoscenti working in the fields they cover. Unfortunately, Pianomania is in the latter category, as only real classical piano geeks will find it wholly absorbing and not deadly dry. We see a lot of puttering and tinkering around the insides of pianos by Knüpfer, but don’t hear enough actual music, which you’d think would be the ultimate, gratifying reward for both viewer and Knüpfer himself. Knüpfer is also kind of a problem, as he is anything but a magnetic protagonist, although there is one funny account of a ball of dust being discovered in a concert piano after many years by a horrified assistant, who is only told to quickly replace it to exactly where it was.

Yes, Knüpfer’s knowledge of and sensitivity in his métier is impressive, but it’s simply not very cinematically rewarding. There’s also little suspense, as you just know with his single-minded perfectionist’s intensity he will indeed find the right music box for Aimard. After an hour or so of watching him burrowing into concert hall basements, fiddling with pianos, conferring with other oh-so-serious musicologists and being told that “the piano movers in Melbourne are not particularly organized,” tenor Ian Bostridge’s magnificent voice dulcetly performing a Brahms piece comes like lyrical manna from heaven. But there’s just not enough of it.