From looking at the jacket cover for Copying Beethoven, I was convinced that for this review I would have to write in a truckload of comparisons to Milos Forman’s 1984 masterpiece Amadeus. That film’s own content prompts anyone making a baroque historical epic to place himself in the role of Salieri, trying valiantly to be great but knowing he can never be what Amadeus was.
This new Beethoven bio-pic was certain to cast the composer in a similar light as Mozart had been, an ill-mannered jerk whose genius was expressed though his many eccentricities. There’d be the scenes where Beethoven would glance at a piece of music too difficult for us regular people to understand, and begin to play as though he’d been doing it forever. There’d be a part where the wig-headed aristocrat would scoff audibly at his crudeness, or give an uninformed opinion about the symphony, not understanding his comparatively lower place in history. And the music would be there as well; a movement for every major scene break, helping us to remember which car commercial’s background song was a Beethoven original.
Copying Beethoven contains every one of the components I mention above. Even though it does, I cannot in any way compare it to the brilliant Mozart film that won Best Picture. Comparing the two would be like weighing a delicious steak dinner served to you by eight pornstars on your birthday against letting an earwig enter your aural canal while you’re having a nightmare.
Even if I wanted to, I could not overstate how bad this film is. It is as though the filmmakers decided beforehand to steal everything they could from Forman’s film, bludgeon out all the creativity and fun, then slap the name of another well-known classical musician on it. Director Agniezska Holland, who should be up on charges, puts together a film that is at the same time moronic and pretentious. It’s like a drunk truck-driver that put on some Victorian clothing and is stumbling around the room forcing everyone to call him Beethoven. The film knows what it wants to be, but seems to not care or have any clue how to make people believe it.
In late eighteenth-century Vienna, the boiling kettle of symphony, a young convent girl and aspiring composer named Anna Holz (the wholly untalented Diane Kruger) has been sent to assist an aging Ludwig Von Beethoven (why, Ed Harris?) in the creation of his famed Ninth symphony. Of course, the characters in the film don’t realize its significance yet. In fact, at this point, Beethoven has become a bit of a joke, going almost completely deaf and burdening his friends and neighbors with his rude behavior and dirty-old-man demeanor.
Anna, desperate to have her work reviewed by the maestro, subjects herself to Beethoven’s endless jabs about her being “just a woman,” and puts up with his coarseness and short temper. He pries into her personal life, finding out, as we do, that she has a hoity-toity son of privilege (Matthew Goode) as a boyfriend. The man is aspiring to be an architect, designing a new bridge for the Archduke. In the worst scene of my life, Beethoven comes to the design competition to bother Anna, and instead destroys the suitor’s model bridge, saying: “I am an artist, I build bridges over men’s souls.”
All of a sudden, just by virtue of her sticking around long enough and meeting Ludwig’s depressed moocher nephew Karl (Joe Anderson), Anna becomes the platonic love of Beethoven’s life. The symphony is completed, and performed as the masterpiece it was. Of course, Anna is there to help conduct (even though she’s just a copyist), since Ludwig’s deafness hinders him from doing so effectively. The two form that stupid movie “bond” that helps them help each other, even through the maestro’s last days.
Copying Beethoven is just an assemblage of scenes that are supposed to press the issue that music is about the soul, or the language of God, or any other stupid cliché you can think of. Beethoven’s musical talent is supposed to afford him the credibility to go on about souls and crap, but this film actually makes the real Beethoven seem like he may have, at one time, totally sucked.
Beethoven alternates between being too much of an annoying ass to being tear-jerkingly honest about the “music inside him.” Ed Harris, without anything good to go on, plays Beethoven as though he were voice-acting the part of Santa Claus in an animated feature. Anna is a stale character, painfully brought to screen by Kruger, and all her motivations don’t make sense. When looking at her boyfriend’s bridge designs, she marvels at how stunning they are. Then, when the model is revealed to her, she tries to pretend like it’s fine, but later confesses it “had no soul.” I think we’re supposed to believe she had some artistic revelation, but it’s never shown.
All the supporting characters are just signposts on the road to the greater message, which is never really supported by the plot. They, too, can’t stop talking about the soul. When discussing Beethoven’s declining work before the Ninth, his manager tells Anna “it’s as though his soul has gone deaf.” If screenwriters Stephen Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson seriously think people would have ever talked to each other like that, even in 1700s Vienna, then they may have identical cantaloupe-sized brain tumors.
This movie proves that the great geniuses that are biographied in films are too hard to find anymore. They certainly had nothing to do with this one. From the direction, to the writing, to the cast, and back to the writing, Copying Beethoven is a crime against history. Ironically, its lesson about music curing the soul caused mine to temporarily leave my body.
The features on this disc, like a copycat killer, continued the work of its evil creator. There are subtitles in English and Spanish, 5.1 Dolby Surround audio, and widescreen (as though I needed to see or hear more).
The director’s commentary features director Agnieszka Holland alongside Ed Harris, but gives no concrete evidence that either of the two have gone completely mad. Instead, they get deep about the movie’s content, and Holland discusses the significance of making a woman an intellectual counterpart to the great Beethoven. Of course, in the film, she acts more as a muse, which are traditionally female, and totters around the screen like a rag doll. Even the Archduke makes fun of the piece she ghostwrites for Beethoven, saying in “I get it”-fashion: “You’re deafer than I thought.”
The deleted scenes are unnecessary since the film was long enough. Any additions, even if I had liked the film, would have made the movie labored and overlong. The film’s central piece, Beethoven’s performance of the Ninth (with the help of Anna), feels like it lasts for the two hours it really was. Holland does optional commentary for the deleted scenes, and in it, she should’ve explained why she kept some of the ones she did.
Finally, there is an “Orchestrating Copying Beethoven” featurette, which basically tells of the making of the film. It focuses on set design and art direction a lot, which were in no way as opulent and beautifully fitting as they were in Amadeus. Whoops, I compared the two. Not good.
I must now go and unlock the vault I have not opened in quite some time - that of my top 20 Worst DVDs of All Time. I’ll have to move aside such horrifying atrocities as Magnolia, Legally Blonde, and Amelie. But it is no trouble. Copying Beethoven certainly belongs there, and I’ll see it gets put in the right place. I just hope it didn’t do any long-term damage to my brayne.
Reviewed By: Daniel Solomon