Until recently I never bothered watching Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved (1994) because I made what I think was a pretty fair assumption that it was a vampire romance movie. The cover? The title? I predicted a lot of fangs in New Orleans. But when I found out that it was a biopic where Gary Oldman plays Beethoven, I definitely had to watch it. It’s a fantastic movie, mostly because of Oldman’s intense performance, but also because it does a great job at showing what it takes to make great music and great musicians. Oldman was actually a piano prodigy himself as a teenager, and does the playing you see onscreen in the movie: a rarity, and much more than just a stunt, it locks the emotion of the acting and the music together.
It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer.
I probably don’t need to tell you that Beethoven’s music is monumentally loud and emotional. It smoothly weaves together gentle melodic passages, soaring symphonic escapades, and bombastic warlike riffs. So it’s interesting to see recreations of the eccentric composer at work developing his symphonies, and to watch orchestras playing some of the most memorable sections of those works. But the purpose of the movie is summed up when Oldman’s Beethoven says, “It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer.” The movie uses a different medium to shine a light on that mental state.
I’m not an expert on Beethoven so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of the film. But the picture we get is that of an isolated and passionate artist, throwing temper tantrums and mistreating the ones he loves, absorbing himself belligerently into every decision that he makes. Instead of making Beethoven as monumental as his music, the movie shows him as a genius, sure, but also as the kind of driven artist and musician we’re familiar with from rock and jazz. While the movie doesn’t clumsily humanize Beethoven or bring him “down to earth”–the music is too striking for him to ever seem like just some dude– it makes us understand his passion. The story is told through flashbacks after the composer dies, and his devoted friend is trying to find the mysterious woman to whom Beethoven has left his estate.
Snapshots of his young life show us his cruel and dominating disciplinarian of a father who wanted to create another Mozart. The implication is that Beethoven gained both his extreme focus and his emotional instability from his father’s beatings and intense training. In the scenes from his adulthood he’s either unwilling, or unable, to bother with social niceties. His music seems to be almost the only thing anybody likes about him. He’s mean to his brother’s wife and even uses his influence to get custody of her son, whom he near-tortures with obsessive musical training as he tries to develop another prodigy.
The weird–and weirdly sympathetic–element of the movie’s Beethoven is that he’s profoundly full of love, but is almost totally unable to express it in a healthy way. During the portion of the film where he has healthy relationships, he creates no music. During his productive times the man locks himself away writing and playing: even after he begins to lose his hearing. It’s clear that music is his purest language and his means of expression, a genuine outpouring of internal intensity and conflict, beautifully constructed into something millions of people would ultimately enjoy and connect with.
This beautiful movie is a striking portrayal of the troubled genius archetype, one that isn’t just about nobility and talent. Immortal Beloved can be a lesson to artists and musicians: not that you should be a raging jerk, but that you can’t step casually into greatness. The world is full of so many distractions, it takes a brutal focus to cut them out and really absorb yourself in what you’re trying to create. Smartphone apps, regular partying, stable careers, and raising families may all be anathema to developing true masterpieces. What sane person would cut those things out of their lives? Immortal Beloved demonstrates a behavioural structure which funnels all that human emotion into something almost inhuman–but also, more than human.
And of course, sometimes it’s just fun to see Gary Oldman rage out.
Check out the other posts in the Movies About Musicians series on DownToJam’s blog:
About the Author
Matt Payne is a self-published author and electronic musician. He lives in Guelph, ON. You can see his work at http://www.pattmayne.com.