The 2014 Lone Star Film Festival got off to a classy start Wednesday night at Bass Hall with the world premiere of Virtuosity, a documentary chronicling the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which took place at that same venue last year.
This particular installment in this long-running series looks familiar in many respects. There are, after all, just so many ways you can film someone playing a piano or talking to a camera. But, while this edition is not a radical departure from those that have preceded it, it does go about its business in a most satisfying fashion.
The highly polished film was directed by Christopher Wilkinson, an award-winning documentarian who also has an impressive list of screenwriting credentials that includes an Academy Award nomination for the script for the 1995 Oliver Stone film, Nixon.
The film follows the usual pattern of cutting between competitors preparing for or in performance and administrators, judges and teachers explaining what the competition is all about. At this most basic level, the film does a good job of covering most of the standard issues and subjects associated with the Cliburn. Both judges and competitors are allowed some camera time to hurl stones at the concept of piano competitions, for example. And the music critics covering the competition get beat up by everybody.
The music is delivered in snippets, as is the necessary in a documentary of this type. But those brief moments are well chosen and placed.
The emphasis is on the competitors as pianists, but the film also makes a real effort to humanize its subjects. The contestants, who are often shot in close up, are frequently shown interacting with their parents. And there are even a few moments of silliness during some on-camera interviews to balance the stark, black-and-white, backstage shots where the tension is so palpable that it almost clouds the image.
One of the competitors receiving an especially generous amount of screen time is semi-finalist Alessandro Deljavan. The outgoing Italian is a man of a thousand faces on the piano bench, and we see most of them in this 85-minute film. It was okay that the filmmakers seemed a little biased toward Deljavan, because he was a darling of the Cliburn faithful. But showing us the underwear Deljavan wears when performing was a serious case of TMI.
From a technical point of view, Virtuosity is a stunner. The videography, overseen by director of photography Larry McConkey, is consistently gorgeous. In addition to the expected performance footage, which is impeccable, there are a number of sumptuous shots of the interior and exterior of Bass Hall.
But probably the most artful aspect of this film is the pace of its editing. It speeds up and slows down in all the right places, often using a few notes of piano music to help carry the tone and tempo of the visuals. The care taken in this aspect of the production is a primary reason this film is one of the most engaging ever done to commemorate the competition.
There are only a couple of failings of the film. One is that, although it is dedicated to the memory of Van Cliburn, the film does not make enough of the fact that this was the first competition without him. That void, felt heavily by everyone associated with the event, was not appropriately acknowledged.
The other is that it does not build enough tension about the awarding of the gold medal. Hopefully, a number of people watching this documentary will have no idea who won (Spoiler alert: It was Vadym Kholodenko, who was present at Wednesday’s screening). But the grand finale of the competition is not milked for its inherent drama in this film.
Virtuosity will air on PBS June 19 of next year.
(OUT OF FIVE)
Director: Christopher Wilkinson
Cast: Vadym Kholodenko, Alessandro Deljavan
Running time: 88 min.