DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – 2 DVD set (2007/2009)

A compelling portrait of the composer which probably would appeal as much to those uninterested in new music or those who can’t stand his music (there are many!) as to his fans.

Published on April 21, 2009

A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – 2 DVD set (2007/2009)

A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – 2 DVD set (2007/2009)

Documentary on Philip Glass, with Woody Allen, Errol Morris, Ravi Shankar, Martin Scorsese

Director: Scott Hicks

Studio: Koch Lorber Films [Release date: Apr. 21, 09]

Video: 16:9 color

Audio: DD 2.0

Extras: 3 hours of extras: Bonus performances, Additional interview footage with Glass, Deleted & extended scenes, Commentary track by Scott Hicks, Printed booklet with production notes

Length: 115 minutes

Rating: *****

This production was also just shown on PBS.  Of course it was without the three hours of bonus material, but so was my single-DVD screening copy, so I can’t report on that part of it. Director Hicks, known for Shine – his fascinating portrait of the Australian pianist – followed after legendary minimalist composer Philip Glass for a year and half across three continents and between his homes in NYC and Nova Scotia. The result is a compelling portrait of the composer which probably would appeal as much to those uninterested in new music or those who can’t stand his music (there are many!) as to his fans.

The early life of Philip Glass is explored with old photos by his brother and sister.  He amazed his parents by announcing he was going to go to Juilliard.  He refused to accept the life of a composer who worked hard to get one of his works publicly performed and then wasn’t heard from again. His teachers at Juilliard included Persichetti and Bergsma and one of his fellow students was Steve Reich.  He assembled his own group of musicians and began giving concerts in alternate venues from concert halls – art galleries, lofts and the like. His sister refers to Philip’s various wives but it is not clear how many there were.  His current wife Holly is much younger and he is again raising a couple young children as he did in his 30s. 

Glass talks about the two teachers he felt had the most effect on him – Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied in Paris in the 60s – and Ravi Shankar, with whom he collaborated on a film score and has remained a close friend ever since.  He describes Boulanger as teaching by fear and the latter as teaching by love.  But as she had done with Piazzolla, Boulanger got Glass to appreciate and move ahead with his own unique musical vision. Glass has been heavily influenced by East Indian music as well as the works of Steve Reich. But rather than the minimalist term he prefers being described as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.”  He has a good sense of humor about negative reactions to his work, and cartoons are shown making fun of Glass’ music. In fact, he feels that if there isn’t a faction that absolutely abhors what you are doing, you aren’t doing the right thing! (My favorite was the revelation that even after his opera Einstein on the Beach premiered at the Met, Philips still drove a NYC taxi to be able to pay his performers. A cartoon shows a lady in the taxi’s back seat reading his posted ID and telling him “Did you know you have the same name as a famous composer?”)

Glass has many artists, writers, musicians and directors among his friends, and several of them are part of his documentary. Conductor Dennis Russell Davis, who has premiere many of Glass’ orchestral works, is seen working with him on his 8th Symphony.  Glass created three film scores each for both Godfrey Reggio and Erroll Morris and talks about their contrasting approaches.  I personally feel his music for Reggio’s nonverbal films Koyaanasquatsi/Powaqquatsi/Naqoyqatsi is the best marriage of images and music ever done, and his suspenseful scores for Morris beautifully underline the genius of this top documentary filmmaker.  Glass visits leading artist Chuck Close, known for his giant portraits of people painted with tiny similar symbols that assemble themselves into an image from a distance.  His work is not unlike Glass’ music, and Philip had been one of his prime portrait subjects for years due to his “Medusa-like” hair.

One of the last of the dozen parts delves into his mediation, exercise and spiritual practices, along with his relationship with the Dali Lama. Glass is clearly very honest, straightforward and not at all the celebrity type of individual one might expect. Some of his philosophy about enriching your life by allowing your uniqueness to come thru could be of value to many. The documentary has an enthusiastic tone about it and provides excellent viewing.  But whether it would convince those driven up the wall by his music to give it another chance is open to question.

 – John Sunier

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