Oh Lydia ... a review of FIELDS's TÁR [2022]

Oh Lydia, Oh Lydia.

Have you met Lydia?


Classical musicians tend to wince at Hollywood’s depictions of their art.


The reasons vary, but principally it involves the painful spectacle of watching actors try to pretend to play an instrument, or conduct. It usually looks quite unrealistic to serious musicians.


A quick look at just a few of the successful and not-so successful efforts over the years:

  • Deception (1946)
  • Humoresque (1946)
    • The directors had the sense to avoid the stars hands, and used doubles at appropriate moments. Still moments of disappointment in both films.

  • Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
    • One of my favorites, for although Rex Harrison doesn’t conduct well, the music and scenario are so well done that we have to forgive his occasional ridiculous stabs with his baton, and commend Sturges for making us laugh so hard.
    • One good joke from the tailor: “Nobody handles Handel like you do!”

  • The Competition (1980)
    • Again, well done with only a few anguished moments when we watch Dreyfuss or Irving try to play. Hand doubles are well placed, especially in the devilishly difficult Prokofiev.

  • Amadeus (1984)
    • Hulce learned to do what he needed. His acting carried the rest and helped create one of the very best films about classical music.

  • Eroica (2003)
    • This too-little-known BBC production — in my humble opinion — is the greatest film about classical music. The viewer is privileged to sit in on the very first rehearsal of the colossal Third Symphony (“Eroica”) of Beethoven. We watch a real orchestra purposely mess up at the start (and that is hard to do, folks!) and Ian Hart is the best Beethoven on screen, ever …

  • The Soloist (2009)
    • Although apparently Jamie Foxx learned some rudimentary cello technique, again the filmmakers avoided shots where we would see both his face and hands at the same time, and used doubles appropriately. A severely underrated film.

  • A Late Quartet (2012)
    • My disappointment was hard to swallow, because the subject of this film is a work that is near and dear to my heart — Beethoven’s C-Sharp Minor Quartet, Op. 131. It was painful to watch shots where Hoffman is trying to fake it. There’s only a few, but it ruins the picture.

  • Youth (2015)
    • The amazing Paolo Sorrentino directed this masterpiece about a composer/conductor (Michael Caine). Caine conducts only twice during the film — once to an orchestra of cows and cowbells (!) and once to a real orchestra (no baton, smooth hands) …

So now let’s talk about TÁR. If you haven’t seen the film, and intend to, stop reading here. SPOILERS AHEAD:


Things they got right:

  • Name-checking the great female conductors of our day — Marin Alsop, JoAnn Falletta, Laurence Equilbey, Nathalie Stuzmann … However, Alsop gave the film a scathing review.
  • “Women who came before us; women who did the real lifting!”
    • “Who, for instance?”
    • “First and foremost, Nadia Boulanger.” [I studied with her for nearly two years.]
      • Boulanger did conduct, but her main emphasis was always on teaching.

  • “Now, my left hand shapes, but my right hand, the second hand, marks time and moves it forward.”
    • This is essentially a perfect description of conducting. Blanchett does a fairly good job, in general, although on several occasions she seems to be stabbing the air without purpose.

  • The Lully story … true! LT seem to have stabbed herself in the foot, as well, by the end …
  • A young girl is talking to LT about her Rite of Spring performance.
    • “It’s the 11 pistol shots…”
      • A pretty cool reference to one bar of music with 11 dissonant repeated chords. To my ears, it sounds more like a cannon:


  • Refusing to permit Eliot to look at her performance score, she rightly tells him: “There’s no glory for a robot.”
  • I had to look this one up: “It sounds like a René Redzepi recipe for reindeer.”
  • “Very Punkt contrapunkte.” This is an incredibly obscure reference to a parody from the Hoffnung Festival — one of the inspirations for Peter Schickele’s  P.D.Q. Bach … listen to it here.
  • “ … standing on the podium with a 433, trying to sell a car without an engine.”

  • Refuting Max’s comment about Bach (below):
    • “What about Beethoven? For me, as a U-haul lesbian (huh?), I’m not too sure about old Ludwig. But then, I face him, and I find myself nose-to-nose with his magnitude and inevitability.”

  • Blanchett — who apparently actually learned the Bach C Major Prelude — makes a fantastic musical joke about Glenn Gould, punctuated a legato passage with staccato!
  • “Let’s slow this down to 60 beats a minute.” Sharon and Lydia dance to Neil Hefti’s “Lil’ Darlin’.” Sharon: “Actually, it’s 64 beats.” That’s an incredible ear to discern those extra four beats!
    • [Peter Erskine tells an even more remarkable story about tempo when playing with Steely Dan, in his book No Beethoven:
      • “Playing “Hey Nineteen,” at 118 BPM, I noticed that the horns had a tendency to push the time a bit, so I thought it might be a good idea to bump up the tempo from 118 to 119 PBM. And so I did, in Cincinnati, without telling anyone and thinking none were the wiser. The next afternoon, Donald and Walter turned to me and said, ‘that felt kinda FAST last night.’ I replied, ‘Wow, that’s really something that you guys noticed.’ They laughed a bit and then said, real serious, ‘Yeah, well … DON’T DO THAT AGAIN.'”]

  • The cello auditions. The filmmakers got it right by having the applicants play behind a screen so that no judgments can be made about appearance or sex. Nevertheless, LT sees #3 leaving with women’s 👠 … ah, will this affect her decision? Hmm.
  • Like her (supposed) mentor — Lenny — she speaks fluent German.
  • The conversation in the recording booth rings true … whether she wants .wav files or mp3s.
  • The little sounds that bother LT. So true! A humming refrigerator, a noisy car vent, in an otherwise silent environment will drive me crazy!
  • “Forget the Visconti!” A reference to Death in Venice, which is saturated with music from the Adagietto movement.
  • LT enters Sebastian’s office. She notices a bust on his shelves. “Is that Kalinnikov?” A wonderful reference to an obscure, but fantastic Russian composer who died at age 34.
  • Andris Davis (Julian Glover): “Thank God I was never pulled from the podium like Jimmy Levine ..,. or hunted like Charles Dutoit.” Ouch.
  • Good discussion about Furtwängler and Karajan re ties with the Nazi regime.
  • The accordion scene is precious: Apartment for sale / your mother’s buried deep, and now you’re gonna go to hell / your sister’s in jail / you are all going to hell
  • The Bernstein Young People’s Concert tape she watches is the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. We witness the depth of feeling produced by the music. Lenny stops, just as Tchaikovsky climaxes on a secondary dominant: F-Sharp Major to B Major to E Major, the tonic …


Things they got wrong:

  • LT is spreading records on the floor (note that most of them are Deutsche Grammaphon recordings, the company that produced the soundtrack!) She positions two recordings of the Fifth into close-up, both DG recordings: Abbado and Bernstein, both with the Berlin Philharmonic.
    • Serious conductors do not listen to recordings of other conductors, once they have attained the professional standing that the filmmakers want you to believe LT has attained. Yes, in their youth they may have listened and made mental notes about what they liked and didn’t, perhaps — but a serious conductor must form his or her own ideas, without the influence of previous recordings.

  • “She’s become particularly well-known for commissioning contemporary work from among others Jennifer Higdon, Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe and Hildur Guonadóttir. And she’s made a point of programming their works alongside composers of the canon.”
    • Oh really? Nice name checks of some great composers (who happen to be female; Guonadóttir wrote the score for TÁR) — but LT show antipathy, close to outright hatred of the modern music she hears during the Juilliard scene.

  • She’s won an EGOT.
    • A serious classical musician is not today and would not in the foreseeable future be a candidate for these non-classical categories. Quite ridiculous.

  • The scene at Juilliard begins with the students playing a piece called Ró by Anna Thorvaldsdottir. It is delightful, but LT begins to tear it apart without much thought. “It must be a pleasure to preside over a bed of strings who behave as if they’re tuning …” Is she really a champion of modern music? By female composers? 😳 …
  • Juilliard scene … Max: “I’m not really into Bach.”
    • Possibly the most ridiculous scene in the film. It’s almost impossible to imagine a conducting or composition student being “not really into Bach.”
    • “Honestly, as a BIPOC, pangender person, I would say Bach’s misogynistic life makes it kind of impossible for me to take his music seriously.” WTF??
    • This entire scene blows up right then and there.
    • “Have you read the Schweitzer book?” Again, a ridiculous response. She’s asking him if he’s read a book about Bach, rather than his actual music.

  • She twists a Varèse quote out of context to make him seem antisemitic.
  • The last few bars of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony on the radio are waking up LT. She tries to identify the conductor: “Lenny? Walter? (Bruno) … “Oh, it’s you, MTT.” (Michael Tilson Thomas). “Why do you insist on holding things up like that? Your business here is rejoicing, not screaming like a fucking porn star.”
    • Now without getting too deeply into the weeds, these last few bars of DS’s most famous symphony actually are quite controversial. It is now thought that these triumphant-sounding final bars are DS imitating Stalin, hitting the people with a stick and saying, “it is your business to rejoice — so rejoice!” MTT had it right.

  • Sebastian — the assistant conductor — gives LT advice on the relative dynamics of the clarinet part. Completely ridiculous and would never happen professionally … for purposes of the film, though, it gives LT an excuse to “rotate him out.”
  • Her original composition which she works on at the piano from time to time is banal and uninteresting. It is all melody without a hint of any accompanying harmony. This might have been to enable CB to handle it.
  • For such a supposedly important live concert recording, to wait until the last moment to decide on a “companion” piece — in this case, the Elgar Cello Concerto, which is there for purposes of plot, of course — is pretty much unheard of … Poor Gosia!
  • LT & Olga (Sophie Kauer, a real cellist) are working on the Elgar. [Props to CB for learning a few chords …]. Then they take a break and Olga sits at the piano plunking out LT’s composition. She suggests changing one note, and LT can hardly contain her ecstasy at this beautiful young genius. Ugh, how terribly fake. Like a serious composer would take advice from anyone!
  • The close-up on the bass drum is beautiful. Blanchett’s conducting here is terrible!
  • “They’re just getting caught up in the power of your glissando and trying to match it …”
    • Another ridiculous phrase. There is no glissando and no one is trying to “match” it. A better phrase might have been something like, “The orchestra is overpowering you, even though you are playing fortissimo.”

  • The close-up of the “For Petra” score shows simple, very juvenile music.
  • From IMDb trivia:
    • “According to Field, LT never met Bernstein, whom she claims as a mentor. The closest she got to him was through the VHS tapes we see in the house she grew up in. ‘He was a genuine figure in her childhood imagination, a very real person for her in a non-cynical way, in a non-opportunistic way. And maybe it’s something she tried on. That’s how lies happen.'”
      • This is all ridiculous. The Bernstein mentorship is a huge part of her resumé. I guess this is a case of George Santos.

  • The scene where they are bringing up allegations of sexual impropriety is meant to remind us of LEVINE. Nowhere does the film show LT doing anything like what got JL in trouble. She may be manipulative … perhaps playing favorites — but she’s not guilty of any sexual impropriety like JL was.

Overall, TÁR is a wonderful thought-provoking film. It is especially rewarding on a second viewing … Fields has hidden many Easter Egg plot points in various scenes — some for just a few frames — which help to fill in some of the mysteries. **** out of *****

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