Directed by: Eugenio Mira
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishe, Alex Winter
By the time Grand Piano screened at Fantastic Fest I had finally made some friends. It definitely made for a different experience. It made for a generally better time. It also meant that before every movie, we’d discuss what was to play. Before I walked into Grand Piano one of these new friends told me, “you’re going to love this. It’s like Speed on a piano.” I asked what that meant (because that sentence makes absolutely no sense), but he told me that I’d understand when I saw it. He was right. I did understand. That description isn’t wrong, but it does not do Eugenio Mira’s new film justice in the slightest.
Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick a piano prodigy who has disappeared from the public eye for five years. His withdrawal stems from a failure to play his former teachers masterpiece, La Cinquette. At the behest of his wife Emma Selzinck, a successful actress played with dignity and just enough soul by Kerry Bishe, Tom comes out of retirement to put his prodigious skills on display at a tribute to that same former master.
Tom Selznick’s nerves are on display from the first minute Elijah Wood is on screen. His rapidly shifting eyes, twitching feet, and full body shakes display a performer afraid of his own failure. When Selznick finally reaches the stage and begins playing (beautifully I might add, Wood went through intensive musical training, and while he didn’t play every note of the movie, he did a spectacular job when he was behind the keys) he discovers a note in his score. It’s a threat. “Play one wrong note and you die.” That threat comprises the whole of the movie. Eventually, the villain and Selznick begin to communicate through an earpiece. The antagonist is John Cusack with the menace turned all the way up in a stunning performance that is almost entirely vocal. Can Selznick play a perfect show, and why does this guy want it so bad?
I won’t spoil any of the answers. In fact, I’m not telling you anything else that happens in the movie, other than this. Every single thing that happens is spine-tinglingly awesome. Aside from the plot and the acting, again totally amazing, the other elements of the movie are impeccable. The score is original and beautiful, aside from the moments when classical music from the performance makes up the soundtrack. In those moments, the movie is its strongest. The complexity and precision of the music is mirrored by the surgical expertise Mira displays behind the camera (and on the guitar. I was lucky enough to see him lay down a bed of shred at the Metal Karaoke event). The shots are evocative of the best of the thriller genre. It’s not a stretch to compare Mira’s work to De Palma or Hitchcock. In one moment the film juxtaposes Wood behind a piano with a shot of Cusack’s accomplice (Alex Winter) going about his nefarious business. In that moment the movie seems to yell, “you wanted stakes? You got em!”
The camera work, the music, the performances, and the script combine to form a movie that will (if there’s any justice in this world) become a staple of film collections amongst fans who enjoy being excited. I assume that’s mostly everyone. Grand Piano is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about a piano. Also, one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen this year.