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On Movies: 'Genius Within' gives a gift to fans of Glenn Gould

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2010 - Glenn Gould, the great Canadian pianist, stopped touring in 1964, in his early 30s. He died in 1982. Yet he remains one of the most popular recording artists in classical music. Gould's recordings, particularly of Bach, are reissued time and again in various combinations and are inevitably bestsellers. His 1981 studio performance of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" is considered to be among the greatest of all classical recordings.

Yet most people, if they have heard of Gould at all, know him less for his music than for his eccentricities - wearing gloves and a muffler in summer, carrying around a battered, low-slung portable piano chair, humming and even singing as he played.

"Genius Within," a superb new documentary about Gould's life and art, pays attention to the pianist's eccentricities - and, toward the end of his life, his mental unbalance - but presents them in the context of his musical genius. Clearly, music was of primary importance to him, and he had a visceral dislike of crowds. But although he was often by choice alone, he had his share of friends and love affairs.

For several years Gould lived with artist Cornelia Foss, who was inconveniently still married to a musician Gould admired, the composer Lukas Foss. For a time, Gould and the Fosses existed in a kind of peripatetic love triangle, with the Foss children along for the ride and, it would seem, no worse for the experience.

Cornelia Foss and her two grown children, who adored Gould, share fond, revealing memories of the pianist in his latter years. They are among a number of people who knew Gould well and who are interviewed by the filmmakers, Peter Raymond and Michele Hozer. Among the interviewees is the incredibly patient sound engineer who worked with the notoriously fussy Gould in the recording studio in Canada.

Throughout the hour and 45 minutes of the film, Gould's exhilarating piano playing is heard, both in the background and in the foreground, and we see historical footage of performances and rehearsals around the world. The exquisite aria from the "Goldberg Variations"  dramatically makes its first appearance as the movie moves to its climax, and the intense purity of the performance will send chills up the spine of Gould fans.

Gould, with his remarkable combination of precision, intensity, virtuosity, hard work, musical intelligence and individual vision, was one of the great musicians of the 20th century, and "Genius Within" does an excellent job of recreating his life and letting us once again enjoy his work.

Opens Friday, Oct. 1

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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