I don’t know a lot about Warsaw’s International Chopin Piano Competition, the subject of Jakub Piatek’s electric and affecting documentary Pianoforte, but I do know a lot about musical competition. I’ve been playing the trumpet since 2003, in massive marching band smackdowns, in the crowd at the Fiesta Bowl, in pin-drop quiet concert halls, and in intimate solo performance rooms. No matter the venue, it’s always the same pressure. Eyes are on you. The silent vacuum of potential that it’s your responsibility to fill, and fill well. If you think about it, if your mind is more active than your instincts, your body can seize up. Pure adrenaline threatens to overwhelm the notes. Your lips refuse to vibrate. Your fingers turn to lead. Music? What’s music? Miraculously, the young maestros overcome the intensity (mostly) and Piatek is there, watching the heartbreak and passion.
Pianoforte oscillates its dynamics, but its tempo rarely dips below allegro. We might pause for an intermission between rounds, but Piatek runs his behind-the-scenes access ragged. Coaches critique. Parents overbear. And the players bend at the piano bench, spines slouching, under this atmospheric weight. There’s a sweet spot of stress—both self-inflicted and pushed from the outside—where you’re nearly driven mad trying to put out your very best, while at the same time never falling over the brink and losing your love of whatever you’re doing. Some of the pianists reach that place, falling asleep at the ivories, only snapping to when reminded that there’s still (somehow) more Chopin to perfect. Other competitors burn out right in front of us.
All are given the freedom to win us over between practice sessions. It makes sense that they succeed: Part of their performance is projecting charisma beyond the sheet music. Wearing the fancy clothes, whipping their impassioned limbs around like Bugs Bunny in Rhapsody Rabbit. Naturally, they know how to work an audience. Also, they’re hilarious, eccentric teens—you don’t obsessively study piano your whole life and not become a winning weirdo.
Marcin Wieczorek, who’d rather be playing Xbox, is constantly breaking the doc’s fourth wall, adding a somber melody to his own sequences. “Life is sad,” he smirks. Alexander Gadjiev does yoga to stay sane between runs of the same etude, jokingly talking back to a dad who notes that he sounded better the day before. Not only do we come to care for the individual competitors, we get a glimpse of the tight bonds and inside jokes forged by people in these highly specific niche communities, often all too briefly and between the delirious shells left after a draining tournament. It’s the kind of kinship shared by the best-of-the-best, because nobody else can truly empathize. It’s the kind of kinship ensuring that the International Olympic Committee continues handing out free condoms for its athletes—people get close in these kinds of situations, where emotions run high and you finally meet people who get it.
Sometimes, we even get peeks into the cultural nuances threading throughout the musician-teacher relationships: Italian pianist Leonora Armellini is coached to be seductive, not like a little girl; Russian Eva Gevorgyan is hounded by her ball-busting taskmaster; Chinese pianist Hao Rao is babied by his long-time lessongiver. “I thought you were his mom!” a woman tells Hao’s teacher. “I wish,” she replies. Though…she kind of is. As we see from home movies, she’s been training him since childhood.
There’s a lot of would-be schmaltz like that, embellished here and there like grace notes, but the confident filmmaking and surefire structure of an ever-whittling group of contestants maintain its meat-and-potatoes feel. This is an observational, elegant documentary, and the tugs at our heartstrings are all earned. And the music! Pianoforte crosscuts performances of the same piece to give a sense of everyone’s musical personality—bouncy, solemn, cocky—and pop needledrops add a little youthful oomph to a documentary designed to desensitize us to Chopin.
In that vein, I love Piatek’s decisions of what to show and how, often cutting in the middle of a performance or boxing it up into the side of a frame—maybe compartmentalizing it in an off-stage monitor—because it underscores how disposable and brief the art produced by these top-tier pianists becomes. They’re all world-class, but that status puts being The Best in sight, which resigns some of the most amazing piano music you’ve ever heard to being little more than live ammunition. Their war is as fierce and absurd as all other wars (as one combatant puts it, “how can you compete in music?”), but you don’t get to this level without ego. The better you get, the harder you are on yourself. If you’re not first, you’re elevator music.
And then the camera breaks free of the competition’s best-of-class bubble, allowing its pianists to play in bars and airports. It catches the reactions of passersby, impressed enough to stop and start recording with their phones. An older woman is moved to tears behind her surgical mask, foreshadowing the film’s heartfelt finale. It’s a lovely reminder that these abilities enrich the world, and it’s only in an artist’s innate desire to achieve (which is, surely, exacerbated by the problem of financing one’s passion—the competition has a large cash prize and leads to lucrative job opportunities) that they put themselves into positions of comparison. To the rest of the world, they’re magic.
But that clarity never takes away from the reactions of its subjects. Perfect shots of loss, where glistening wet eyes steal the focus from the prominent center of the frame, are piano wire around our hearts. Pianoforte’s depiction of the musical competition’s more painful points never quite decry them as futile or hypocritical. There’s simply not that level of Whiplash-like toxicity. But there is a toll, paid by everyone, and an agreed-upon risk, personified by Hao’s teacher, a former would-be competitor who, in her words, wasn’t ambitious enough. One way or another, this level of commitment will always stick with you.
Pianoforte’s understanding of musical competition and of those artists dedicating their lives to performance is so thorough as to teleport you back in time to the moment when you were faced with your first obsession. Effortless and hands-off in conducting the process of the event, it excels in doing so while ingratiating us towards its competitors. It’s a conventional documentary, but if the Chopin Competition teaches us anything, it’s that a tune everyone knows, performed with elegance and personality, can say something new every time it’s played.
Director: Jakub Piatek
Writer: Jakub Piatek
Release Date: January 20, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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