Big Issue Vendor

Beyond the soundtrack: Musicians in film

Claire Jackson takes us on a journey and shows musicians have always taken a central role on the big screen
Ready for your close-up? Inhouse illustration

Adelaide, that music, it’s from Carmen isn’t it?” asks Georges Hautecourt in The Aristocats (1970), as Berlioz the kitten winds up the gramophone. “That’s right, it was my favourite role,” replies Madame Bonfamille, in what might be the least subtle humblebrag going.

“It was the night of your grand premiere that we first met,” recalls the visitor as the two reminisce about the former mezzo-soprano’s career. This was my first encounter with Bizet’s Habanera, and I acquired a recording of the full opera during a subsequent library visit.

Film soundtracks can be a useful route to classical music. Many movies have bespoke music, of course (the likes of John Williams and Hans Zimmer have made composing for screen an art form in itself), but many use pre-existing works.

There are playlists detailing the use of different pieces in films (Colin Firth listens to the overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro during his first therapy session in The King’s Speech) – useful for a Zoom quiz round. Sometimes, however, musicians take a starring role beyond the soundtrack.

The Lady in the Van (2015)

One day, writer Alan Bennett invited a woman who was living out of her vehicle to use his driveway. She stayed for 15 years. The experience inspired plays, a memoir and a film with Maggie Smith. The ‘lady’ is one Mary Shepherd, a former professional pianist who had studied with Alfred Cortot and played at the Proms. Clare Hammond plays the young pianist, performing Chopin with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Green Book (2018)

The film’s real-life titular publication advised African-American travellers how to navigate white-imposed segregation. The guidebook is given to Frank Vallelonga as he takes a job driving pianist Don Shirley on a tour of the Deep South in 1962. Based on a true story, Green Book provides a painful reminder of racism towards black classical musicians.

Quartet (2012)

Maggie Smith (again) plays a former opera diva in this light-hearted comedy-drama about a British retirement home for musicians. Beecham House is based on the Italian ‘rest home for musicians’ set up by Verdi in 1896, where, we can assume, the residents were just as mischievous as those who get together to stage a charity performance of Rigoletto in this adorable film.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

A highly fictionalised account of the formative career of the trombonist and band leader, featuring favourites including Little Brown Jug and Pennsylvania 6-5000. There are cameos from Louis Armstrong, Trummy Young and Gene Krupa, among others. As Miller gets on to the plane for the last scene, his words “It’s a little soupy” never fail to send shivers down the spine.

The Pianist (2002)

The harrowing experiences of pianist-composer and Holocaust survivor Władysław Szpilman (1911–2000) are the subject of this compelling film. Szpilman was playing live on the radio when the Nazis invaded his native Poland; The Pianist follows the subsequent torturous years, including escape from extermination camps. Essential – albeit devastating – viewing.

Soul (2020)

Another film featuring a pianist – this time, a fictional, animated one. Joe Gardner, like many musicians, juggles a ‘portfolio career’ mixing classroom and peripatetic teaching with the odd performance gig. Just as he gets his big break – playing with the Dorothea Williams Quartet – Gardner falls down a manhole and has to find a way to reunite his soul with his body.

Amadeus (1984)

This imagined story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his rival Antonio Salieri remains one of the best-loved films about a composer. It includes snippets of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, the Requiem, The Magic Flute and many others. A useful gateway to the world of 18th-century music.