Viewers of PBS’ American Masters biography series will make their third trip north of the border in the show’s 26-year history on Dec. 27 with the airing of an Oscar-shortlisted doc about celebrated Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Directed by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gould explores the private life of the reclusive musician, who died in 1982, through interviews with his friends, lovers and musical contemporaries.
The film, distributed in the U.S. by Kino Lorber Films and internationally by Films Transit International (excluding Canada, where it’s handled by Union Pictures) required more than a year of visual and audio research and features more than 350 never-before-seen photographs sourced from the basement of Sony Music, home movies, personal recordings and diary entries.
Gould was a huge star when Raymont was growing up in Ottawa in the 1950s and 1960s. Since his death, both his musical genius and personal life have become the subject of much mythmaking and so White Pine Pictures co-founder Raymont and director/editor Hozer sought to create a biographical film that would simultaneously introduce Gould to a new American audience and break down the enigma for long-time fans. Realscreen recently spoke with Raymont to chat about penetrating Gould’s ‘inner life’.
Why were you interested in making a film about Glenn Gould?
I’d thought every film about Glenn Gould had been made. I saw 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, also made by a Canadian, Francois Girard and the NFB films, Glenn Gould: On the Record, Glenn Gould: Off the Record. Then I was approached by a writer who had interviewed [Gould's ex-lover] Cornelia Foss and was about to have an exposé of Gould’s love life printed in the Toronto Star. I went and visited her in New York and she was wonderful and willing, for the first time on camera, to speak about her relationship with Gould. That opened a huge area of research and characters and people who knew Gould in an interesting way. I figured, yes, there is another film that can be made about Glenn Gould that no one has made before.
What did you learn about his personality that you didn’t know before?
Most people thought of Gould as this reclusive, ascetic, almost asexual character. Or maybe he was homosexual – people didn’t really know, right? Although he was very handsome and attractive and sexy as a young man, there was really nothing known about his private life. He was never seen with a girlfriend, he was never married and it was always kind of a mystery. People somehow just thought that he was so consumed with his work and overwhelmed by his musical genius that maybe he didn’t have time for a personal life. It’s kind of crazy – everybody wants to love someone and everybody needs to be loved and he was no different.
As a filmmaker do you relate to his desire to withdraw from performing in concert – the more commercial side of what he did?
I think that is what has made the film so popular in the United States. The film has played in over 50 cities in the United States over the last few months and it has been shortlisted for an Oscar. There’s something in all of us that can identify with Glenn Gould and this perfectionist nature that he had which made him able to create such wonderful works. The need to be in control of his own destiny and not be subsumed by a Columbia or a Sony… It’s those aspects of his personality and his character that are attractive to any creative person.
What parallels do you see between the way the classical music world was in the ’50s and ’60s and pop music today? Classical music is such a niche genre now.
It is in a way, but I put Glenn Gould on my Google Notifications and he has an enormous fan base all over the world, especially in countries like Japan and Germany where he’s highly respected and regarded. His records sell much better now than he did when he was alive. Although you may think of it as a niche audience, I think he reaches beyond the traditional classical music audience just because he is so quirky and special and imaginative and a genius. A lot of people know or Gould and listen to Gould that are beyond your traditional classical music audiences.
What’s your favorite music by Gould?
Well, everyone says The Goldberg Variations and Michèle Hozer, the co-director and the editor, did an amazing job. She found for each sequence in the film, as one goes through Gould’s life chronologically, music to illustrate that period of his life. It was a brilliant job. I still think it’s the two Goldbergs: the one he recorded as a kid in his 20s and the one he recorded at the end of his life just months before he died. The difference between those two recordings is remarkable, telling and you really feel him through those two recordings.
How did you convey the power of his music in the film?
There’s one really lovely sequence in the film where [Gould's classmate] Ruth Watson Henderson is talking about how the piano teacher they had taught them this tapping technique. When you see things like that you really do get insights into his technique. It goes beyond listening to the music as a wave of lovely sound and you’re able to start analyzing it the way we analyze shots in movies. I think if you can break it down into technique it opens up and reveals the detail of the music in an intimate way.
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould airs on PBS’ American Masters on Monday, December 27 at 9pm. Visit the film’s official web site for a list of theatrical screenings. To see the film’s trailer in the realscreen screening room, click here.