“The Song of Names,” based on Norman Lebrecht’s award-winning novel, is a story of two people sent off in different directions searching for lost family members.
The action begins in 1951. On the eve of his debut concert performance, for a packed house, including kings and queens, Polish musical prodigy Dovidl Rapoport (Jonah Hauer-King) disappears. His adopted English family, including brother Martin (Gerran Howell) is distraught. They first met Dovidl as a nine-year-old who, when he moved in with them to study violin, declared, “If I snore I snore in tune. I am a musician!” The family kept him safe from the Nazi threat and groomed him for greatness.
Cut to 1986. Martin, now played by Tim Roth, is adjudicating a music competition in Northern England when a contestant uses a technique that seems very familiar. Thoughts of his erstwhile brother have consumed Martin and this simple but unique method of rosining the bow sets Martin on a journey that will take him to Poland and finally New York City. His quest has one simple purpose, to find out why Dovidl (played as an adult by Clive Owen) left.
As a celebration of music “The Song of Names” is terrific. Legendary composer Howard Shore has written new music, including the “Song of Names,” a moving recitation of the names of all the Jewish people killed at Treblinka. It’s a powerful moment, solemn and heartrending, that is the film’s absolute high point. More playful is a violin duel in a London air raid shelter between the nine-year-old Dovidl and a teenage rival. Both scenes display the power of music to move us, whether it is to tears or to applause.
It’s the detective story that falls short. Clues that have eluded Martin for decades suddenly become obvious and the journey, such that it is, seems less like a mystery and more like a game of “Where’s Waldo.” More intrigue may have brought with it more emotional weight.
“The Song of Names” is a handsome, if somewhat dreary historical drama that does hit the emotional notes it needs to succeed.
This week on the Richard Crouse Show: Howard Shore has composed scores for over 80 films, including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies. He has three Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards and four Grammy Awards on his shelves and was the original musical director for the American show Saturday Night Live from 1975 to 1980. He is also a consistent collaborator with director David Cronenberg, having scored all but one of his films since 1979. He has also composed a few concert works including one opera, The Fly, based on the plot of Cronenberg’s 1986 film.
Based on the award-winning novel by music scholar Norman Lebrecht, THE SONG OF NAMES is a bold journey through friendship, betrayal, and reconciliation.
SYNOPSIS: Martin Simmonds (Tim Roth) has been haunted throughout his life by the mysterious disappearance of his “brother” and extraordinary best friend, a Polish Jewish virtuoso violinist, Dovidl Rapaport, who vanished shortly before the 1951 London debut concert that would have launched his brilliant career. Thirty-five years later, Martin discovers that Dovidl (Clive Owen) may still be alive, and sets out on an obsessive intercontinental search to find him and learn why he left. An emotional story spread over two continents and half a century, the film shows that within the darkest of mysteries sometimes only music has the power to illuminate the truth, heal and redeem.
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Recently “Whiplash” studied the student-mentor relationship as it applied to a drummer and his teacher. It painted a brutal picture of the ruthless search for perfection but the dynamic between the two fed the drama and made the extended drum solo at the end of the film as exciting as any action flick set piece.
“Boychoir” breathes similar air but is much lighter in its approach.
Stet (Garrett Wareing) is a rebellious Texas tween from a rough neighbourhood. He’s a troubled orphan with the proverbial voice of an angel given the chance to improve his life and voice by earning a spot at the Boychoir boarding school. Under the tutelage of the demanding Master Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman) Stet travels the world, sublimating his anger with music and creativity.
“Boychoir” will please people who found “Whiplash” too harsh. It’s the kinder, gentler version of the student-mentor tale that places the music in the forefront. The choral arrangements are stirring but the story could have benefitted from taking a chance or two.
Director François Girard does a nice job of moving the plot from A to B but, like the beautiful music featured on the soundtrack, is a bit too harmonious, too conventional in the telling of the story. Hoffman brings a sense of melancholy to a character who has given his life to music and left room for very little else. That would have been worth exploring, but “Boychoir” is content to smooth over the rough bits in favour of being a crowd-pleaser.
As an actor two time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman has created some indelible characters—Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso Rizzo and Tootsie to name a couple—but from an early age he dreamed of being a professional pianist.
“I wanted to be a musician but I was never talented enough,” he says, “so I’m not a musician. I have small hands—and by the way there is no correlation to your hands and personal parts—so I can’t reach much more than an octave.”
In the new film Boychoir he shows his musical side playing a choirmaster to a group of talented youngsters. During the film’s making he tinkled the ivories on screen and off, spending his downtime duetting with director François Girard.
“As far as François and I noodling on the piano,” he says, “I would have preferred it was only me. He was busy lining up the shots, but he did noodle, so there was a bit of competitive noodling.”
As a young man he studied classical piano but when it became apparent he’d never turn pro, he tried his hand at acting. “I had been flunking out of junior college and somebody said, ‘Try acting. Nobody flunks acting.’”
Enrolling at the Pasadena Playhouse, he shared a room with Robert Duvall and studied with Gene Hackman.
“No one told me I was a good actor,” he says. “No one told Gene and there was a third person, Duvall, and we hung out together. They are both much, much older than me. If someone was to say to the three of us in those early days that we were going to be successful, forget about being movie stars, everyone would have laughed. It’s kind of a freak accident that it happened to all three of us.”
Hoffman’s big break came in the form of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Robert Redford was considered for the part but director Mike Nichols rejected the traditionally handsome actor—“ You can’t play it,” he told Redford. “You can never play a loser.”—in favour of the unknown Hoffman. The Graduate made him a star and is now considered a classic, but almost fifty years later he remembers how the critics savaged his performance.
The barbs hurt at the time, but he doesn’t let them get under his skin any more. “Critics are… I shouldn’t say,” he laughs, “I don’t know if anyone grows up saying, ‘When I grow up I want to be a critic.’”