Skip to main content

Roll Over, Beethoven: Larry Weinstein is the Maestro of the Off-Beat Music Documentary

By Marc Glassman

From Larry Weinstein's 'September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill'

So you think you know music documentaries? Welcome to the inventive works of Larry Weinstein, a wonderfully quirky filmmaker, whose career has been spent documenting the lives and works of composers Kurt Weill, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Ravel, Shostakovich, Weinzweig, Mozart and many more.

But not in the normal way.

A doctor wearing his lab coat is sitting behind a desk in a nicely appointed 1930s-style office. You expect to hear a formal prognosis and you do--sung in the beautiful deep voice of an opera singer. The patient, Maurice Ravel, is diagnosed by his singing neurosurgeon with "aphasia or apraxia," to tones and cadences inspired by his own compositions.

It's 1920s Austria and a scandalous affair between the painter Gerstl and Mathilde, the wife of avant-gardist Arnold Schoenberg, stuns the artistic community. With no archival footage extant, the film stylishly resurrects the tale by cutting between a typically anxiety-inducing song by Schoenberg, delicate portrait paintings by Gerstl of the cuckolded composer and his family, faked home movies, shots of the dark woods that dominate the local landscape and a reconstructed interview with a family friend who witnessed the events.

In a huge industrial warehouse, old wooden sets are strewn on the dank, wet grounds. Through loudspeakers hammered into the brick walls, voices in German and English jostle with each other in counterpoint recounting the rise of the Nazis amidst the ferment that also resulted in the revolutionary musical theater masterpiece The Threepenny Opera. A huge picture of the German-Jewish composer Kurt Weill dramatically rolls on wires from far back in the frame to arrive at the front of the camera. Beneath the photo, rock musician Nick Cave emerges to sing in harsh frenetic terms the iconic Weill tune, "Mack the Knife."

When asked to justify his unique approach to documentaries, which so frequently employ dramatic devices and deliberately phony archival footage, Weinstein laughs. "I get perturbed because sometimes people think social documentaries are the only ones that count. Labels are stupid. Ravel's Brain had a lot of re-creations as well as interviews with [real] people, and I won best director at [Toronto's] Hot Docs, a festival that hadn't shown my previous work!"

A tall Canadian filmmaker whose demeanor is open and friendly, Weinstein doesn't give off the air of one who is obsessed with the avant-garde. His explanation is typically low-key and unpretentious: "It all started when I did my film on [Canadian composer] John Weinzweig in 1988-1989, The Radical Romantic. I loved that John was so outspoken and such an activist. I thought it would be really fun if I had him stare right at the camera and just hone in on issues that mattered to him. I told him, ‘OK, you hate that people talk about beautiful music. You think that's irrelevant. Let's write down two or three sentences and just treat this film like your soap box.' It was great getting him to be an actor, playing himself, trying to distill who is John Weinzweig, what his beliefs are. Script it and do it for the camera."

The big step came three years later with the international co-production My War Years: Arnold Schoenberg. Recruiting a young German-Canadian, Thomas Wallner, to help him, Weinstein spent much time absorbing the story of Schoenberg, whose 12-tone technique revolutionized contemporary music. "The more I delved into what Schoenberg did, the more I realized that some of the greatest advocates or detractors of his music were people with whom he surrounded himself," Weinstein explains. "So we'd get the words of Alban Berg talking about Schoenberg, almost like a worshiping disciple, and Webern as well. And interesting words of Kandinsky and Kokoschka and [Alma] Mahler and all of these [fascinating Viennese] people. I just had this kind of epiphany to cast actors but shoot it like a documentary--and not get an actor to be Schoenberg, but rather use photographs of the real Schoenberg and an actor who would voice his quotes. When that didn't supply enough material, to start re-creating Schoenberg's own home movies and to do this array of movies of Schoenberg from 1901 to 1923 based mostly on photographs, but to present it in a rather realistic way."

Described in Weinstein's off-handed "aw shucks" manner, one realizes that the reaction to My War Years took him by surprise. "A lot of critics got offended," he admits. "I think they were fooled thinking they were watching real home movies and then when they realized that they weren't," he shrugs. "Of course, some critics were fascinated by it. People really kind of sat up and took notice of this thing. And I was told, ‘Okay, you did this really well but you can never do it again. This is really a bizarre approach.' So, of course, that just made me want to do it again."

It took eight years but the indomitable director was at it one more time, in 2000, with Ravel's Brain. Weinstein had made a straight documentary about Maurice Ravel in 1987 and had been stunned by his decline and demise, which struck him as "the saddest story in music." Ravel suffered from brain diseases that made all forms of communication difficult and, horrifyingly, rendered it impossible for him to write or even play music. In despair, he submitted to neurosurgery, which killed him.

"With such a grim subject, how do you not just sink into a mire of depression?" comments Weinstein. "I wanted to show some of the joy in Ravel's life and I decided to have constant music. I thought it would be interesting to incorporate Ravel's own brain operation as a part of the film, dramatically. When I saw the protocol [of his operation] is written in point form and some of the lines are very short [often five syllables], I started thinking about Ravel's early songs, which also had five syllables per line. And I started, in my mind, sort of singing the protocol of Ravel's operation to the melody of an early Ravel song or two. And I thought, ‘This would be a really interesting exercise. Almost a weird, Brechtian exercise.' Rather than show a grim brain operation, to do it in song. Again [like the Schoenberg film], it was a technique, which some people just found too bizarre. But I don't care. I actually have a lot of affection for that film."

In between the Schoenberg and Ravel films, Weinstein made films on Hanns Eisler, Shostakovich and Weill. Of the three, the Weill film, September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill, turned into an artistic and popular triumph for the director. "It was a very elaborate, expensively designed variety film, which also gave a taste of Weill's life." recalls Weinstein. "It came out of Lost in the Stars, a brilliant record that Hal Willner produced in 1985. I loved the idea of making a tribute to Weill with a number of artists contributing their interpretations of his songs.

"We chose to make it all on one huge set," Weinstein continues. "The London Docklands and their big warehouses inspired us. So did the Pabst 1931 film of Threepenny Opera. A lot of magical ingredients came together. The brilliant [theater and opera set designer] Michael Levine agreed to work on the film. So did Lou Reed and P.J. Harvey and William Burroughs and Elvis Costello. I notice that many of the pieces are on YouTube, though, legally, they shouldn't be. I love the music we created to this day."

Surprisingly, Weinstein never studied music. "I bring a generalist's knowledge to each subject," he says. "I've always loved music and sometimes I feel that not being a musician may help my films because they don't get bogged down in minutiae."

The first biopic that fascinated him was Song of Summer, Ken Russell's film on Delius, made for the BBC in the 1960s. "I remember seeing the film and running to the library the next day to research him," Weinstein recalls. "After that, I liked the idea of films on composers, though I never thought I would do one."

All of Weinstein's films--experimental or straight--benefit from "meticulous research. For me, it's really fun to combine my love of music and research for a film," he explains. "Part of the reasoning behind doing films like Ravel's Brain is that I don't like to repeat myself. I work a lot with the same crew and I want each film to be an adventure-for them and for me."


Marc Glassman is the editor of POV, Canada's leading documentary magazine, and of Montage, the publication of the Directors Guild of Canada.