The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould had a storybook entrance into the concert world. A famous concert in Washington D.C. of highly unusual repertoire (for the time) drew rave reviews, and shortly thereafter an exclusive recording contract with Columbia, one of this country’s biggest labels. Gould’s first release should have left classical listeners cold; he chose to an abstract sleeping pill written by J.S. Bach for a student’s insomniac patron. But surprising everyone, the album became a best seller which has not gone out of print in 55 years.
It was Gould’s magical playing and stimulating mind that made the Goldberg Variations famous in our time, and with his sudden death in 1982 at the age of fifty, a legend was born.
There is a new documentary about this pianist, called “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.” It’s kind of an unwieldy title, but there have been several videos about Gould’s extraordinary life, and having seen them, I was interested if this document would help solve some of the mysteries. The answer is, pretty much.
What was the puzzle? Gould was an odd man, and as he grew older his obsessiveness and paranoia grew as well. Between common sense practices like bathing his arms in scalding water to warm them up, a bizarre little chair his father built so the pianist could sit low to the keyboard and then there was Gould’s desire to dress warmly even at the beach near the equator! These quirky items were seized upon by Columbia’s PR people, and before long a lot of even non-music lovers knew about that kooky Canadian pianist. But this wasn’t fun for publicity’s sake, it was Gould’s obsessive-compulsive disorders that turned these sensible habits into rituals that had to happen before a concert or the show would not go on. It is not surprising that the pianist retired from concert giving in 1964 and went to the recording studio to earn a living.
After Gould’s death, a number of books hinted at the pianist’s personal life, of which nothing had been written about during his lifetime. So Glenn was a normal guy, except for the hyper-genius pianist part that had to come to terms with the world by controlling everything that affected him, even to the time of his recording sessions; ten o’clock at night till dawn. “The Genius Within” takes us through Gould’s fifty years, and we meet many of the people who worked with him and loved him. It is their insights and candor that make this film important to anyone that has been moved by Gould’s extraordinary talent. As Jaime Laredo told me in an interview once, “I’ve worked with many of the biggest names in this business and Glenn Gould was the only one I would call a genius.”
Some of the film used is in the documentary is old and shows its age, but the sound of Gould playing in 5.1 surround is exciting, clean and bracing. This is something the prescient pianist anticipated with his eight-channel recordings done for CBS in the late 1960s - amazing.
Recommended. Director’s cut 113 minutes 16:9 5.1 sound, music by Glenn Gould. DVD extras include deleted scenes and extra interviews.