Inevitably a conveyor of meaning in cinema at some level, music sometimes moves to the foreground of a film while retaining its wonted role as backup band. A noble if convoluted example of a movie that is at least partly about music while delivering quite a bit of it is The Song of Names, which had its debut in September under the auspices of the Toronto International Film Festival.
The director is François Girard, who was also the mastermind of The Red Violin (1998), which this Canadian-Hungarian production somewhat resembles in its earthy palette, multiple perspectives and panorama of historical settings. The cast even includes a plot-thickening violin, in this case a Gagliano rather than a Stradivarius.
The true centre of gravity, however, is Dovidl Eli Rapoport, a gifted adolescent violinist sent from Warsaw to England just before the start of the Second World War. He does thrive (despite the diffidence of his teacher, Carl Flesch, a real historical figure) and performs well at school while boarding with a kindly impresario, Gilbert Simmonds. He also develops a brotherly if initially adversarial relationship with Simmonds’s son Martin, a moderately competent pianist whom Dovidl affectionately calls “Mottl’’ and with whose assistance he manages (not too plausibly) to educate himself as a musician.
To relay even this much of the story risks a violation of spoiler rules, since The Song of Names (based on the eponymous 2002 novel by the British critic Norman Lebrecht) is structured as a mystery with multiple strands of narrative and alternating flashbacks and fast-forwards. Reassorting them in the mind requires considerable intellectual effort and occasional suspension of disbelief.
The opening sequence is clear enough. The prodigy fails to appear for his hotly anticipated London debut in an orchestral concert that Simmonds, a respected figure, has paid for and promoted himself. Needless to say, the disappearance intrigues the press and greatly distresses Dovidl’s surrogate family. Simmonds dies a few months afterwards – in part, Martin believes, because of the humiliation, worry and financial loss his father endured.
Yet it is only years later, while acting as a judge at a competition stacked mostly with mediocrities, that Martin, reminded of Dovidl by one of the contestants, decides to go on a worldwide hunt for his missing friend. “Why are you wasting your time on him?” asks his wife, whose exasperation seems downloaded from an online repository of tension-creating dramatic devices.
The search does take the viewer (and listener) to interesting places. A New York violin shop is one. The horrifyingly lonely Treblinka memorial outside Warsaw is another. It becomes gradually clearer through the movie that the unknown fate of the Rapoport family – who might or might not have survived the Holocaust – is the source of Dovidl’s mood swings and episodes of consternation, including a frightening scene in a synagogue in which the young violinist, with Martin as witness, undertakes a ritual renunciation of his faith.
There are also images of air raids, which seem to intrigue the boys more than frighten them. One excerpt-worthy scene in a shelter finds Dovidl engaging in a violin fencing match with a slightly older rival prodigy, much to the delight of the crowd. Many of the best scenes, later in the film, explore the candlelit world of Orthodox Judaism.
It comes as no surprise to discover that Howard Shore, a much-honoured Canadian, is adept at producing soulful music (including the semi-liturgical work of the title) with the appropriate modal flavour. Yet I cannot say I heard the makings of a freestanding “Song of Names” concert piece for violin and orchestra to stand alongside those derived from The Red Violin (John Corigliano, composer) or Schindler’s List (John Williams).
Of course, there are also repertoire works, including the Paganini Caprices No. 9 and No. 24 and Wieniawski’s Variations on an Original Theme Op. 15. Ray Chen, the well-known Taiwanese virtuoso, does the audio honours. A squad from the Orchestre Métropolitain recorded Shore’s original music under the direction of the composer over three days last June in the Très-Saint-Nom-de-Jésus Church in Montreal. As plans now stand, the soundtrack will not include Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, since the film edit is drawn from Chen’s performance with the London Philharmonic under Robert Trevino on The Golden Age, an album released last year by Decca. Interestingly, Dovidl in the movie describes his performance of this once-popular warhorse as “crap.” One assumes Chen would beg to differ.
The likeability of Dovidl – especially in his cheeky youngest incarnation as acted by Luke Doyle, a real British prodigy – has much to do with the appeal of the film. Clive Owen (who needed to be coached in appropriate fingerwork) brings depth to his adult counterpart. Tim Roth is relatively phlegmatic as the adult Martin (not that screenwriter Jeffrey Caine has given him an abundance of personality to work with). Only a few glints of humour are allowed into this earnest script. There is also an outburst of violence and profanity of questionable realism in a car.
The movie is not perfect. Still, it deals perceptively with the timeless themes of fame and family and makes an honourable contribution to the struggle against what Girard in an interview has called historical amnesia. The conclusion, creating a tapestry of the title music as performed in three locations, including Treblinka, has fitting gravitas. The Song of Names is worth a look, and a listen. Expect a general release in December.