Genius Within The Inner Life of Glenn Gould

A screening at the Moving on Music Festival has Steven Rainey waxing lyrical

In the world of classical music, Glenn Gould is a titan. He was a trailblazer in 1950s and 60s, the poster boy of classical piano, before retiring from the live stage to concentrate on other projects, namely his career in broadcasting and recording.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, attempts to uncover the inner workings of one of Canada's favourite sons. To a large degree, it works.

Gould is depicted as a charismatic figure, easily weaving his magic and drawing people into his world. The public's attention is captivated by the child prodigy, the recording world succumbs to his charms, and even giants like Leonard Bernstein are forced to let the errant genius have his way.

Using a selection of archive footage, interviews and recordings made by Gould himself, Hozer and Raymont show Gould unleashed upon the world fully formed at the age of 22. His ruffled hair, long coats and gloves all mark him out as a mysterious, charismatic figure. Right from the beginning, Gould knew the value in being a showman.

The major strength of this film is the amount of fresh interviews featured - with fellow students at the Royal Conservatory of Music, contemporaries, old girlfriends and the people who would come to be as close to Gould as any family: his production team at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The interviews are candid, and reveal a man whose dominant personality could suffocate as well as entice.

After capturing Gould in a period of relative domestic bliss (whilst he liked to promote an aura of mystery and ambiguity, it appears he craved a settled, simple life), the film charts the worsening of Gould's eccentricities. When Gould died shortly after his 50th birthday, Canada mourned him as a national treasure, but the truth of the matter was that few were close to him. Fewer still had any idea of the lonely life he led. 

Gould - both in music and radio - was perpetually looking to a democratized future that would have little need of virtuoso figures like himself. In archival footage, he speaks of a world where people could create and edit their own art, where they could have ideas and not be stifled by lack of ability or technology.

In short, Gould was thinking of the internet and its peculiar ability to break down the boundaries between professionals and amateurs. Gould was ridiculously talented, but he was forward thinking enough to know that the future lay in the hands of those who wanted to do it for themselves.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is both revelatory and frustrating, a curious mixture of previously unseen footage and standard, workman-like TV documentary style production. The real tragedy here is that Gould was adept at documenting his own life, but any reference to this is bypassed in favour of seemingly endless long shots of a man in a trench coat wandering aimlessly along beaches.

Alongside this, the film is largely uncritical of Gould and opts to gloss over some of his more unpleasant traits. This reverence ensures that many important questions are left unanswered. And yet, the film succeeds in prompting the casual viewer to seek out his music.

There is no doubt that Gould was ahead of his time, and one can only wonder what he would make of a world dominated by a DIY spirit, a sensibility that allows raw talent to find an audience, as well as pushing amateurism to the forefront of popular culture.

Check out What's On for information on the Moving on Music Festival.