Review: Grand Piano
We live in a generation where movie ideas are getting dumber and dumber, but the movies themselves are getting better and better. On paper, Grand Piano sounds like a sketch from “The Critic,” in which a sniper challenges a concert pianist to play every note correctly or pay the ultimate price. That shouldn’t be a movie. At best it should be an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” But a movie we get all the same, and under the direction of filmmaker and composer Eugenio Mira, Grand Piano overcomes its ridiculous conceit and emerges as bravura entertainment.
Elijah Wood plays the concert pianist, Tom Selznick, who’s making a nervous return to the stage after bungling his last concert by playing – and screwing up – the most complicated piece of music ever written. As Mira sets the stage, he also lights a powder keg: Selznick hasn’t played in years, his talent has been overshadowed by his successful actress girlfriend, the stagehands all think he’s going to choke, and what’s that bright red dot on the sheet music?
Soon, Selznick finds an earpiece and begins a harrowing conversation with his would-be assassin, played by John Cusack, who has very specific reasons for this very bizarre game of cat-and-mouse. Although the plot is eventually revealed – and is equal parts nifty and stupid – screenwriter Damien Chazelle has more on his mind than simply playing the game. He’s interested in Selznick actually playing the music, and the way this potential murderer might be the very thing Selznick needs to finally achieve artistic greatness once and for all.
Grand Piano is the more playful cousin of Chazelle’s other script this year, Whiplash (a film he also directed), a tale of a drumming prodigy and his abusive professor that also demonstrates the horrifying relationship between antagonism and perseverance. Chazelle seems fascinated by the notion that the ends might just justify the means, and that opposition to true villainy is a prerequisite for becoming a hero. He may be right but it’s a scary message to send to sensitive art students who have probably been bullied enough already, unless schools have changed dramatically since I attended them.
So while Eugenio Mira may be having the time of his life finding ways for Selznick to secretly call for help, and in offing one-by-one the poor saps who might be able to save him, the real drama comes not from the enjoyable but contrived set-up, but rather the way that contrived set-up highlights the ongoing struggle for self-improvement, and the simply unfortunate need to be pushed in order to push back.
To achieve these somewhat lofty goals, Mira crescendos Grand Piano’s suspense to ludicrous heights, formulating complex shots that Brian De Palma would be proud of, and setting the climactic battle against an impromptu, bizarre and deliciously overblown performance of “Motherless Child.” What better way to finally stop the show than with a proper showstopper?
There’s not much to Grand Piano’s plot: the film presents a problem and coerces its hero into playing through it, throwing just enough red herrings and facepalm obstacles in his way to elicit audience sympathy and elevate the proceedings from b-movie territory into at least a solid B+. I’m not sure if its lessons for artists are worthwhile or not, but if nothing else Grand Piano teaches a valuable cinematic lesson: if you’re going to go crazy, go spectacularly crazy… and be committed.