"Genius Within: The Inner Life Of Glenn Gould" debuts tonight at 9 p.m. in most markets as part of PBS' American Masters series. Check local listings.
Because I know jack-all about classical music, I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of Glenn Gould prior to the release of the 1993 arthouse hit Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. And frankly, because François Girard and Don McKellar’s take on the life and art of the eccentric Canadian pianist is so impressionistic, I can’t say the movie gave me more than the roughest outline of who Gould was and why he was so significant. So if nothing else, I appreciated Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life Of Glenn Gould because it filled in the gaps between Thirty Two Short Films. This film tells Gould’s story from life to death: How he developed an interest and aptitude for music as a pre-schooler; how he became an international sensation in the ‘50s, becoming a well-known name even outside the fine arts community; how he developed into a popular but unreliable concert attraction before giving up live performance in 1964; and how he dedicated the final decades of his life (before an untimely death in 1982 at age 50) to exploring the potential of the recording studio.
Genius Within also delves into Gould’s personal life in ways that Thirty Two Short Films didn’t, though it’s here where Hozer and Raymont stumble a bit. Gould was an odd bird, to be sure: a flake and a hypochondriac who held unconventional views on art and relationships. But the movie takes great pains to note that Gould was also quite personable and kind, and although he had a long-term love affair with a colleague’s wife—even allowing her and her children to move in with him—the arrangement was otherwise civil and ordinary. Roughly a fifth of Genius Within is dedicated to this romance, presumably because Cornelia Foss and her now-grown children consented to be interviewed and may be the only living people who really knew Gould intimately enough to comment on what he was like on a daily basis. But their comments aren’t that profound, frankly, and take time away from exploring Gould’s work, which remains just as mysterious in its way as his unusual habits.
Specifically, I wished Hozer and Raymont had spent more time on Gould’s radio documentaries, which explored life in Canada (in a musical way) and music (in a Canadian way). Genius Within touches on programs like “The Idea Of North” and Gould’s study of the music of Petula Clark, but doesn’t focus on the mechanics or accomplishment as much as it focuses on how strange it was for Gould to head in that direction with his career. And because I’m still not in the least bit adept when it comes to classical music, I also would’ve liked for Genius Within to deal more with what made Gould such a standout, beyond his quirks.
Which isn’t to say that the film is devoid of insight. Hozer and Raymont trot out plenty of scholarly folk who call Gould’s spirited 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations “a revelation,” matched only by his more contemplative, experimental 1981 version. And many of them make an effort to explain how Gould shook up the classical music establishment by breaking away from a tradition of rote interpretations performed with technical perfection. But the case for Gould is made better by Gould himself, in the generous amount of archival footage in Genius Within. Watching Gould in action—all crouched over his piano, humming to himself, swaying to the music, each hand moving almost as its own entity, tapping on the keys as though Gould were typing out a letter—it’s easy to to see why he captivated audiences.
It’s even easier after hearing Gould talk about music, with his affable, gentlemanly air and keen sense of what’s proper. Gould would play pieces at different tempos, or with different emphasis, in order to get people to hear familiar music in new ways. He was respected by his peers—even if they felt he was disrespecting the composers he was reinterpreting—because they knew even more than the critics of the time that Gould was making valuable discoveries. And though Hozer and Raymont don’t expressly make the connection, it’s entirely possible that Gould’s ability to hear music in unexpected ways was tied to his fretting over every twinge and bubble in his body. At one point in Genius Within, one of Gould’s colleagues describes how the pianist once took a composition written expressly for him and retooled it, telling the composer, “You don’t understand your own piece” Maybe Gould really did have secret knowledge, which he could only express through his fingers.