11 Oct 2009

Toscanini: In His Own Words

The back cover description of this Medici Arts DVD can fairly be called misleading, though not dishonest.

The cover photograph seems to be a head shot of Arturo Toscanini, with the title below his chin: Toscanini: In His Own Words. The back cover script states that “private tapes…[and] excerpts from his letters…form the basis of this unique film.” Some might believe that this “film by Larry Weinstein” is a sort of documentary. But look closer — a cast listing gives the names of actors in the roles of Toscanini, his family and some associates.

What Weinstein has done is write a script (with Harvey Sachs) in which Toscanini is seated in a parlor area, possibly having after-dinner drinks, and reminiscing about his life and career. His thoughts are prompted by comments and questions from his family and friends, seated around the great man. These frequently stilted interjections (“I’m curious, can you remember your first love?”) produce anecdotes accompanied by authentic still photographs or film footage. Many of these stories and quips will be familiar to anyone who has read much of anything about Toscanini. However, Barry Jackson, who impersonates Toscanini, does a mostly commendable job. Perhaps once or twice his accent takes on the corny flavor of caricature, but overall he captures the sad dignity of the man. The other actors have not much else to do but to stare admiringly at Toscanini/Jackson.

So what we have here is a fiction film that employs documentary footage. Indeed, a “unique film.” For the many fans of Toscanini, the illusion that the great man has actually been caught by the cameras in moments of both joyful and sad recollection may be attraction enough. At 70 minutes, the film certainly does not wear out its welcome. No new depths are explored, but it is certainly amusing to hear Toscanini call Umberto Giordano “stupid” and Wilhelm Furtw√§ngler a “big clown.”

Surely the best exploration of what Toscanini was all about can be found in his many recordings. Still, a project like this has its place in a total picture of the legendary figure, especially in filling out a human dimension often lacking in other perspectives. Tentatively recommended.

Chris Mullins