Representing Classical Musicians On Screen

Two of my lifelong loves are writing and music, and I’m fortunate to be able to balance them both. A third is a guilty pleasure — watching bingeable TV, mostly period dramas depicting centuries-old royal families and the scandals, drama and romance that follow them. There’s nothing like seeing the fancy costumes, elaborate sets, and beautiful locations, and diving into that historic world for seasons on end. 

How lucky I am when all three loves combine on-screen in depicting the world of classical music and musicians. It’s the best mix I could ever want, right? Wrong! Nothing grinds my gears more than seeing untrained actors attempt to portray classical musicians when using real musicians could do the job a million times better. 

One of the worst examples I have ever seen is the 2016 movie High Strung, about a dancer and violinist studying at the prestigious but fictional Manhattan Conservatory of the Arts. The actress who portrays the dancer has a dance background in real life, but the actor playing the violinist shows no evidence of musical training — the first of many mistakes with this film. 

The first of many cringe-worthy moments depicts a “playing battle” against another violinist, with bows skidding all over the fingerboard, incorrectly synced left hand, and poor posture and body tension. The film reaches its highest level of tomfoolery when the two actors literally fight with their instruments, causing viewers who know better to pray that nothing fractures or breaks. 

If that wasn’t enough, the violin’s audio track turns from classical-sounding to an amplified electric instrument — once again out of sync with the actor. A movie attempting to show the art form and genre authentically instead made a mockery of it all, leaving viewers with the takeaway that classical music is not an art form that should be taken seriously. 

Along these same lines is the popular America’s Got Talent. A wash of people enter with various talents, including the occasional “classical” musician. Notice the quotation marks, dear readers. When I was younger I went through a phase of wanting to audition for AGT, to prove that classical music was cool, and not just something for rich, old people. 

Happily, my childhood wish never came to fruition, and I am glad for that. Now the show only presents people playing cliché pieces at a mediocre level. The audience yawns through this — that is, until performers proceed to strip off their clothes and dance, often kicking over piano stools or snapping their instrument in two. Suddenly, the act becomes theater and has nothing to do with classical music. People practice countless hours to perfect their craft, and I’m not saying anyone has to be professional in order to spread and share music with others. But classical music is not for amateurs to mock. It should be regarded as a respectable career. 

A show that almost got it right is Bridgerton, one of Netflix’s most popular shows in 2020. Set in Regency England, the show was a welcome escape from lockdown and quarantine, and offered viewers like myself a journey back in time. 

For the most part, the show presented a convincing view of the titular character’s family and London’s marriage market, aligning with historical facts about Queen Charlotte, using 7,500 costumes that took five months to create, and a vast number of powdered wigs typical of the period. Bridgerton gets points for persuading its audience that they were taking an extended stay in regal England — except that its musical score often included classical instrumental arrangements of pop songs by Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, and Taylor Swift.

The score was recorded by the professional Vitamin String Quartet, but they were replaced on screen by four actors pretending to perform at royal dances. Through the miracles of editing, the untrained foursome was never shown for long, but struck a dissonant chord nonetheless. A show that had spent almost seven million dollars to produce a highly realistic product could have hired the Vitamin Quartet themselves. 

As happy as I am that film and TV want to portray the beautiful world of classical music, the industry could use some consultation on how to do so more authentically. Of course, actors’ unions wouldn’t take kindly to replacing their members with professional musicians. But with a budget as large as these projects have, the least they could do is hire coaches, so the final product makes an attempt to look realistic. They owe that to musicians who train for decades and put everything they have into their instruments. The least the film industry could do is to respond with something other than blatant disregard for their sister art form.

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