The documentary Genius Within gives us an intimate portrait of celebrated 20th century pianist Glenn Gould. Described as the James Dean of classical music Gould’s combination of looks, eccentric behavior and talent made him a true original. Born in Toronto in 1932, Gould’s mother was 43 and desperate for a child having actually given up hope. Prior to his birth even she had exposed the fetus to music non-stop as she was desperate for her child to be a successful musician. Gould’s talent was apparent from a very early stage after being encouraged to hum and sing he apparently never stopped afterwards.
Genius Within as a documentary is the usual mix of archive footage, stills and talking heads combining to paint a portrait of the man. The film leaves you in no doubt that Gould was essentially a rock star within the classical world. His flamboyant performance style was legendary leading to much fascination with the man by the mass public. He had no doubt that people wanted a performance when he played live and he didn’t disappoint. One wonderful inclusion shows the young maestro talking about the problem of chairs at venues. He had discovered the exact height he needed a chair to be (13 inches), and that he had one specially made by his father. Before having his own chair he had to cut down chairs on arrival and then pay for the damage.
The film has footage of a Russian tour that Gould undertook in 1957 becoming a huge star due to his zeal for total perfection. The Russians found his utter immersion in his chosen passion something to admire unlike the western world who viewed him as a little strange. Slowly Gould became disillusioned with the live circuit gaining a reputation for cancelling more concerts than he actually played. Following a concert in New York under the baton of Leonard Bernstein he shockingly quit the live scene forever at the age of 31.
As time went on Gould retreated further and further into new avenues that included studio recording, radio work and even films. The film contemplated that as his work become more recorded and edited he himself followed suit. His recording became more and more innovative with editing techniques that are in fact commonplace today. Any public information or misinformation about Gould was heavily controlled by the man himself. He actively encouraged as much exaggeration as possible which ensured that any sense of reality remained his own.
The film paints the portrait of a staggering genius that not unlike Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth is simply unable to fully interact with society. His early interviews show a young man who seemed ill at ease but bursting with personality. Later interviews are far more controlled and even scripted according to the film. Gould was a man firmly in control of every single aspect of his life from his work to his private life.
The majesty of the film is Gould himself who’s maverick spirit is something that appeals to some but not others. The assembly of the footage is well chosen to wonderfully match the soundtrack which is of course excerpts of Gould playing. As things turn darker later in the film the music also becomes frantic. For anyone who has seen Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould this documentary will fill in some of the information missing previously. Personally I would say that you don’t need to be a fan of classical music to appreciate this film. Characters such as Gould extended beyond their own worlds and are able to penetrate people unfamiliar with their work. Ultimately you are left with the view that Glenn Gould will remain partly an enigma for evermore, which this film makes you believe is exactly how he would have wanted it.