By Lance Belville
The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire has been thrilling concert audiences since he was a child prodigy of six from a small town in the interior if Minas Gerais and this latest documentary about him only confirms his power at the piano and his charm away from it. He is a sort of pixyish little man of 61, with a scruffy, graying beard, chubby little hands and a sweetly sad smile that breaks your heart while it warms it.
The content is a fairly straightforward telling of the maestro’s life from still pictures of him as a sickly child in outback Minas, to his first, prodigy performances in Rio, to footage of him worrying, rehearsing and performing in Brazil (of course!) Russia, France and Belgium.
But the form of this fast-paced documentary is unusual for this sort of film biography. It is a series of short segments introduced by brief screen titles. The segments range from perhaps fifteen minutes to one hilarious little piece of about 45 seconds.
The film is not chronological, if follows its own emotional line. We start with Freire on the concert stage of St. Petersburg, Russia, with the thundering final piano and orchestral chords of a piece which is impossible to know from the little we hear. We see Freire taking reluctant final bows and refusing to play any encore for the ecstatically clapping audience. This opening image of the reluctant musical superstar, this shy and private individual whose love and dedication to music has cast him all-but-reluctantly onto the world concert stage, will be explored during the course of the film.
Although the style of the film is quick and finds humor in unexpected places, it also delivers quite a varied and reasonably satisfying plate of music given virtuoso performances. Noteworthy are the rehearsal and concert sequences with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. There are striking performances of works by Villa-Lobos, Rachmaninoff (lots of Rachmaninoff!), Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Chopin, Bach and Gluck. Musical gourmets will likely find the offerings more tantalizing that nourishing. For the rest of us, there are many musical moments to be savored.
But the film is also very much a back-stage view of a world-class pianist and what it takes to stay that way. We see Freire pacing and fretting about upcoming performances. We see him sitting down in street clothes in empty concert halls, trying the pianos and getting used to the acoustics. In one sequence, he finds a piano in (where else?) a São Paulo concert hall unsatisfactory. He tells us that in the words of the great Brazilian pianist of another era and the musical love of his life, Guiomar Novaes, Pianos are like people. Some people they like. Some they don’t.” After the unfriendly piano is taken to a subterranean workroom, all-but dismantled, re-assembled and returned to the stage, the maestro is still unsatisfied, “This one doesn’t like me,” he pronounces, but performs on it.
We see Freire practicing and performing with Martha Argerich, the Argentine pianist and his musical partner. At one point he shows her how he cleans his piano keys with 4711 cologne.
In another sequence, Freire is at home watching videos. Through this, we stumble onto a sad and moving insight into the man. Watching an old Errol Garner clip he beams, “The joy he has in playing! That is music!” This leads to a short but revealing discussion. ” For me, a concert I play is a failure if I do not have a moment of joy.” A moment? “Classical pianists used to have that love of playing,” Freire opines, ” but no more. Rubenstein adored playing. Novaes had the joy.” With classical pianists nowadays, he feels, most of that joy is gone. “Argerich has it,” he adds. “And you, do you have it?” the off-screen interviewer asks, Freire’s reply is a sad shrug.
Freire is notoriously publicity shy and short on the usual virtuoso’s ego. We see it as he trudges out for curtain calls and presses flesh in the green room after a concert; all chores to be endured as part of the job. Freire puts it simply: ” It is not about fame. No ego.It is the music. Only the music.” Observers of the international music business believe Freire’s publicity shyness has cost him dearly in both fame and fortune.
In one sequence , which falls just short of hilarious, we get a good example of just why Freire dislikes publicity. In an elaborate sequence filmed by a swimming pool in France, a harried director is trying to get just the right amount of child hilarity in the background before he pops Freire his first question: “Coming from such a warm country as you do, do you think it affects your piano playing?” Freire’s expression tells us why he hates interviews.
Loneliness is his constant companion and you can see it in his sad eyes. He attributes much of it to his sheltered and sickly childhood spent mostly sitting at a piano keyboard. No football for little Nelson. No climbing trees. He did not go out and play rough games like the other children. “I was a lonely child and my music became my refuge. Loneliness? I have learned to like it.” That a life dedicated to music has taken its toll is noticeable in the man. You see that is makes him happy and it makes him sad, often at the same moment.
The documentary arrives at the San Francisco International Film Festival at an opportune moment. Freire and Argerich performed in across-the-bay Berkeley barely a week before the first showing.