18 January 2023, 21:10 | Updated: 19 January 2023, 13:01
When classical music and film come together, magic can happen. Join us as we explore some of the all-time great films about classical music and musicians.
We hear so much great film music soundtracking our favourite films, but what about when the music itself is the basis for the plot?
From the Golden Globe-winning Tár, starring Cate Blanchett as a tyrannical and troubled maestro, to the impending biopics about the lives of Leonard Bernstein (Maestro), and Joseph Boulogne (Chevalier), 2023 is set to be classical music’s biggest year in Hollywood to date.
And as the former begins to sweep the floor at this year’s award ceremonies, we look back more than 80 years, to some of the most memorable times that Mozart has met the movies.
Read more: The 50 best film scores of all time
Telling the tale of Mozart’s life, and the rivalry between Mozart and fellow composer Salieri, this 1984 film was a huge success at the box office. The composer was baptised as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, but often called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – from which the film’s title is taken. This film is a real staple of classical music represented on the big screen.
The Pianist (2002)
A moving biographical war drama, adapted from the memoirs of Polish-Jewish musician, Władysław Szpilman. After hearing Szpilman play a Ballade by Chopin, a German officer takes pity on the pianist and offers him food and shelter.
Read more: The Pianist: what’s the music, is it a true story and did Adrien Brody really play the piano?
Cate Blanchett won a ‘Best Actress’ Golden Globe for her portrayal of Lydia Tár, the fictional first female conductor of a major German orchestra. While brilliantly scored by Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, and peppered with references to Leonard Bernstein, Marin Alsop and even Deutsche Grammophon, Blanchett has since said of Tár, “It’s not a film about conducting [or] even really about classical music. It’s an examination on the corrupting nature of institutional power.”
Rhapsody in Blue (1945)
George Gershwin’s music is almost as exciting as his life story in this biographical film, starring Hazel Scott, a leading jazz virtuoso of the 20th century. Gershwin, played by Robert Alda, may be a driven composer, but his need to succeed eventually destroys his relationships.
Each of the mini stories in this Disney film are based on a piece of classical music, including Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. Memorable highlights include Mickey Mouse attempting to perform magic tricks to the sound of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009)
A wonderful combination of passionate music and a passionate love story, set in Paris at the time of the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Both Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky took Paris by storm with their radical ideas in their respective fields of fashion and music.
A Late Quartet (2012)
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken star in this musical film, released in April 2013. It tells the tale of the four members of a quartet, struggling to stay together in the face of adversity.
Read more: 11 actors who learned to play a musical instrument for films (and one who definitely didn’t)
Paganini: The Devil’s Violinist (2013)
Telling the story of Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini, this film set in the early 19th century stars David Garrett as the eponymous hero. Asked what he thought the differences were between him and Paganini, Garrett responded, “Not even that much. He was maybe slightly more eccentric.”
The Piano (1993)
Featuring a best-selling soundtrack by Michael Nyman, The Piano is set during the mid-19th century, detailing the story of a mute pianist and her daughter when they are abandoned on a beach in New Zealand. The pianist, Ada, may not be able to talk, but she communicates through the music of the piano.
Immortal Beloved (1994)
Gary Oldman stars in this 1994 film, investigating the identity of Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’. The mystery object of Beethoven’s affections is mentioned in letters written by the composer, which were acquired by his biographer, Anton Schindler.
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
Meryl Streep starred opposite Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins, the comedy that follows the real-life New York heiress known for her quite terrible singing, on her path to fame in the opera house. Streep’s achingly funny imitations of Florence’s inept takes on the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria and ‘The Laughing Song’ are a highlight.
Read more: The real story of American heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, the ‘world’s worst opera singer’
Moving from romantic comedy to Romantic piano music, Hugh Grant is the unlikely choice to play Chopin in this biographical film. It tells the tale of Chopin’s love affair with the French novelist known by the pseudonym George Sand.
Hilary and Jackie (1998)
Documenting the life of world-renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré, this film portrays her rise to fame, her marriage to conductor Daniel Barenboim, and her tragic untimely death. It’s based on the memoirs of Jacqueline’s sister, Hilary, who stood by her account even after the film attracted controversy for allegedly distorting details in Jacqueline’s life.
Four members of a retirement home come together to form a vocal quartet, so they can perform music from Verdi’s Rigoletto. It just so happens, however, that these four performers happen to be retired opera singers, with a complicated past…
August Rush (2007)
After escaping a boy’s orphanage, 11-year-old musical prodigy Evan Taylor arrives in New York City where his talent is uncovered by a slew of characters and he takes on the stage name ‘August Rush’. With renowned musical institutions featuring throughout, including the Juilliard School and the New York Philharmonic, the film is a heartwarming reminder that, “music is all around us, all you have to do is listen”.