J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Wagner & Me: Stephen Fry Geeks Out


Can you separate an artist’s work from their offensive ideology?  Hollywood asks Middle America to do exactly that nearly every weekend.  Granted, the case of Richard Wagner is of a much higher magnitude.  After all, we know whose favorite composer he was.  Stephen Fry is also an ardent admirer, who tries to reconcile his beloved music with the man’s problematic legacy in Patrick McGrady’s Wagner & Me (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Fry is clearly a civilized man of the arts, who actually lost family members in the Holocaust.  He also loves Wagner’s music.  Love might be an understatement.  Touring the celebrated Bayreuth concert hall built to the composer’s specifications as it prepares for its annual Wagner festival, Fry is absolutely giddy.  All his sophistication deserts him.  It is a total fanboy geek out.

Frankly, Fry might cringe at some of this footage in years to come, but on the other hand, cynicism is overrated.  Fry conveys his passion for the music and God bless him for it.  To his credit though, he does not ignore the dark side of Wagner.  While he does not delve too deeply into the composer’s documented anti-Semitic sentiments, he fully explores the way Hitler and the National Socialists used the long deceased Wagner to legitimize their reign of insanity.  W&M is particularly eye-opening when addressing the support Wagner’s heirs lent to Hitler at a very early stage in his career.  Fry also visits a violinist who survived the concentration camps to get her considered judgment on Wagner, which is indeed quite reasonable and reflective.

Wagner will always be a tricky figure to come to terms with.  On a basic level, an artist like Wagner or a veteran of film and television like Fry cannot help it if some unsavory characters become fans of their work.  Yet, many will fairly argue there were chauvinistically nationalistic themes in Wagner’s operas that were all too compatible with National Socialism.  Fry somewhat tries to rehabilitate his idol (while wisely refraining from the “he was a big fan of Mendelssohn and some of his best friends were Jewish” defense the Wagner establishment has floated), but he never closes the deal.

In fact, viewers might walk away from W&M more critical of Wagner the man than when they walked in.  That is a testament to Fry’s honesty if not necessarily his persuasiveness.  Interesting but not essential, Wagner & Me opens this Friday (12/7) in New York at the Quad Cinema.

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