classical movies are music to cinema’s ears

No, not classic movies: classical movies. September is Classical Music Month, the origin of which probably ties in to the whole “back to school, back to seriousness” idea. Which is sort of silly, actually: just because classical music is has stood the test of time doesn’t mean it has to be solemn.
In fact, for most of us under 60, our first exposure to classical music came before we ever knew what “classical music” meant, perhaps in the Bugs Bunny cartoons we slurped up with our Cheerios on Saturday mornings. The most famous of which is probably the best, and one still beloved because of its musical parodying: In 1957’s “What’s Opera, Doc?” Bugs and Elmer Fudd send up Wagnerian opera in gloriously comic style; the short has long been a favorite of fans and critics alike, and is the only Bugs Bunny cartoon in the National Film Registry. (It’s available in the DVD set Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2.) We knew Gioachino Rossini “William Tell Overture” as the theme to the 1950s Lone Ranger TV series starring Clayton Moore (also available on DVD), and that association has lingered even in the long absence of the character from TV or film. And generations of American kids likely first heard Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and other classical pieces in Fantasia, the 1940 Disney film that enjoyed regular rereleases up through the 1970s — and hopefully today’s kids are seeing the film on DVD.

Classical music has gotten connected to goofy grownup stuff, too. The Marx Brothers spent A Night at the Opera for their 1935 film, which revolves around a production of Pagliacci and features a slew of songs from Il Trovatore. And the John Philip Sousa march “The Liberty Bell” will likely never escape the air of insanity it acquired when Monty Python chose it as the theme music for its Flying Circus sketch-comedy series (which is available in its entirety on DVD). The 1977 Italian film Allegro Non Troppo is perhaps more unsettling than goofy: a parody of Fantasia, it combines selections form Debussy, Vivaldi, Stravinsky, and other great composers with trippy, psychedelic animation that is definitely not meant for kids.

Perhaps in defiant resistance to the strange but common notion among nonfans of classical music that it is somehow “nice” or “boring,” filmmakers have frequently linked classical compositions to disturbing, violent, or otherwise less than pleasant imagery. Lots of classical compositions have been appropriated by horror films — or, more frequently, by the makers of horror-film trailers — but few films have ever come as close to making a piece of classical music dark and distressing as Apocalypse Now does for Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Unless it’s 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, which turns Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony into a weapon to be used against its antihero.

Compared to those flicks, 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — also from Orange director Stanley Kubrick — is downright pastoral in its usage of classical music in the unexpected setting of space. Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Blue Danube” and Richard Strauss’s (no relation) “Also Sprach Zarathustra” are so connected to the movie’s majestic imagery that it’s easy to imagine that some lovers of the film don’t realize the music wasn’t written specifically for it.

Movies about the people who play classical music abound, such as 1999’s Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep as an inner-city schoolteacher who introduces her students to the joys of the violin; 1996’s Shine, featuring Geoffrey Rush as a classical pianist struggling with mental illness; and this year’s The Soloist (new on DVD in Region 1, but new in theaters in the U.K.) in which Robert Downey Jr.’s Los Angeles journalist befriends a homeless man (Jamie Foxx), who just happens to be a highly gifted classical bassist. But there have been surprisingly few films about the great composers themselves. There’s Immortal Beloved, from 1994, starring Gary Oldman as Ludwig van Beethoven… but it pales in comparison to Amadeus, 1984’s Oscar winner for Best Picture and one of the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest films. Perhaps not until the overwhelming shadow of Amadeus — and Tom Hulce’s iconic performance as the composer — recedes will we see another film that even attempts to capture such genius.

Where to buy:

Allegro Non Troppo [Region 1] [Region 2]
Amadeus [Region 1] [Region 2]
Apocalypse Now [Region 1] [Region 2]
A Clockwork Orange [Region 1] [Region 2]
Fantasia [Region 1] [Region 2]
Immortal Beloved [Region 1] [Region 2]
Lone Ranger [Region 1] [Region 2]
Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2 [Region 1]
Monty Python’s Flying Circus [Region 1] [Region 2]
Music of the Heart [Region 1] [Region 2]
A Night at the Opera [Region 1] [Region 2]
Shine [Region 1] [Region 2]
The Soloist [Region 1]
2001: A Space Odyssey [Region 1] [Region 2]

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Kathy A
Kathy A
Mon, Sep 28, 2009 1:51pm

One of my favorite uses of classical music is in The Right Stuff, when the director used Holst’s The Planets (the Jupiter and Mars movements) for John Glenn’s flight. They fit perfectly as the backdrop to such an awesome event.

Tonio Kruger
Mon, Sep 28, 2009 3:32pm

September is Classical Music Month…

And you just now got around to mentioning it?

For shame, Ms. Johanson. For shame. ;-)