Soundtrack: Guðnadóttir / Tár

This week I paid Jeff Bezos $5.99 to stream Tár, a film about a pushy classical conductor/composer with a career track record in the realm of classical music such as has never been seen upon this earth.

The writers of this picture have created Lydia Tár, the fictitious protagonist of this study in power and talent and pomposity (ably played by Cate Blanchett), to have a career path as music director of the following: The Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic

For most career musicians just being named the music director of the Seattle Symphony for a couple of years would be the crowning achievement of a life in music. But I guess in Hollywood nothing works unless you go big.

For all of that, I was expecting a lot of great music in this film. And there is a lot of music in Tár. It just doesn’t seem like it.

Yes, there are lots of snippets of rehearsals with the BPO (though I’m not sure if the real orchestra members have cameos – all credits of this film are presented in the opening sequence and no, I’m not going to spend another $5.99 to rent it again to check if that contrabass player was really Stanisław Pajak). There is a scene of a youth orchestra playing a few bars of something or other. A minimalist piano plinks away in the background now and then. But most of the classical pieces peter out after a handful of seconds. I was surprised that the film was so musically stingy.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, a Icelandic cellist of some eclectic reknown, handles the scoring of this film. In comments about her concept for the music she speaks of a motif of five notes she penned to act as a recurring binding element. These notes are plainly introduced in a couple of scenes where Blanchett is working out a theme for her symphony or whatever it is, so we hear it briefly when she’s seated at her big dick 9′ grand piano that she has installed whevever in the world she happens to be nesting. Supposedly Guðnadóttir wove those 5-note motifs into existing material, but that’s a little obscure for me; I honestly didn’t notice them in the score.

This is perhaps not the composer’s fault. It could be that in Tár the barrage of images depicting faux composer Lydia Tár‘s  exalted life are so distracting that the music doesn’t register to us as we take in the panorama of her affluence in sullen, seething envy. The cold, lavish interiors of her NYC apartment, the majesty of the concert halls where she is master of all she surveys, the smooth cockpit of the $150k electric car she drives – all of this is tough for a soundtrack to fight with. Hard for the music to compete for a slice of your attention when watching a couple of women working out the power dynamic of their relationship in front of a kitchen island the size of a container vessel.

(A note about kitchen islands the size of container vessels. The only people who can afford them usually don’t have time to use them. The only person I knew who was rich enough to install such a beast only used the stovetop a few times, and only to boil water for penne that was topped with designer sauce out of a jar).

After establishing the big movie template of grabbing viewer interest with exhibits of designer goods and shelter porn, this film gets even more luridly Hollywood as it unfolds. The last reel is laughable by any measure. 

Four things I got from this movie:

  1. Alpha male leads in Hollywood films are just as annoying if they are female
  2. Cancel culture, who cares one way or another?
  3. Inserting a load of scholarly classical music jargon into your screenplay is guaranteed to increase the film’s runtime by a half hour
  4. From shrinkage, the classical music world is now more slavishly competitive than I could have ever imagined 

To clarify that last point: This film has a crazy level of product placement for the Deutsche Grammophon record label, who aim to spin media partnerships like this into großes Geld. The screenplay name-checks many great warhorse conductors of DG’s illustrious past, and there’s a scene where the conductor/composer/music director/baton slasher/greatest musical mind who ever existed Lydia Tár has a load of Deutsche Grammophon albums arrayed on her floor which she pushes around with the toe of her shoe. She’s supposedly ruminating about inspiration for her Mahler 5 interpretation, but it’s all bullshit – the brief sequence is shot from above, which provides no filmic value whatsoever but does serve the ends of the DG marketing department to great advantage. You can get a lot of those LP covers in the frame if you shoot from above in widescreen. And those big yellow brand mastheads are impossible to miss.

To the surprise of exactly nobody who has seen Tár, DG had the temerity to close the loop by releasing a soundtrack album of this film, despite the fact that there is but a tiny amount of original material in it. Cross-promo at it’s finest!

Artistic corruption like this in films make me wonder why I watch films at all. My desire in watching a movie is that I will see human drama or comedy without sledgehammer-subtle sales plugs and ad copy glibly eminating from the mouths of highly-paid actors. You wonder why production companies still pussyfoot around with not-so-subliminal messaging and just put interactive elements that we can click on and buy products, as on YouTube. Which I suppose is where everything in film is eventually going.

And to add to all of that – there’s an ambiguity to the plotline of this film that has been much debated in the media. Doubtful that was an artistic decision so much as a commercial strategy. Ambiguity is just more social media catnip. Get ‘em talking. Get ’em arguing. Get ‘em fighting. Get ’em buying. Besuchen sie den DG store… sehr gut!