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Wagner & Me
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by Jay Seaver

"Not deep, but not bad."
3 stars

"Wagner & Me" is probably only going to be terribly educational for those like myself whose musical knowledge is relatively shallow - the folks who sing "kill the wab-bit!" to ourselves when a certain bit of Richard Wagner's most famous piece shows up on the soundtrack. Fortunately, it is nicely informative for that audience, and even for those in the audience who know everything he's saying, it's an hour and a half of Stephen Fry expounding on an enthusiasm, and that's always a pleasant time.

Mister Fry is, among many other things, a lover of Wagner's music, and he is quite excited to come to Wagner's hometown of Bayreuth and the theater that the composer built there for the express purpose of showing his "musical dramas". The theater now hosts an annual music festival centered around Wagner's Ring Cycle, with a seven-year waiting list for tickets. And yet, Fry tells us, he is ambivalent about supporting it; being Jewish, it is hard for him to overlook just how strongly the music is associated with the Nazis (he was a favorite of Hitler and the Wagner family supported the Nazis well before not doing so was suicide), and the anti-Semitism in the man's own writings.

Fry and filmmaker Patrick McGrady investigating Wagner's life and music and trying to reconcile those feelings gives them a reason to crisscross Europe while using Bayreuth as a home base, making stops in Nuremberg, Switzerland, and St. Petersburg to visit the important scenes of Wagner's life and afterlife where music is performed and scholars are interviewed. It is, generally, a good overview; McGrady never seems to be glossing over any portion of his subject's story, and while the examples of Wagner's work are often briefer than they perhaps must be (even when he doesn't have to try and deliver the essence of a four-hour opera in five minutes), he and Fry do a fair job of explaining things that may seem rather opaque to non-musicians.

The strength and weakness of that framework is Fry himself. Stephen Fry is a man of varied and voluble enthusiasms, and each visit to a new location brings forth the giddy joy of a teenage girl with a backstage pass for her favorite band. It's sometimes a bit distracting, but much more often it's infectious, especially since he manages the neat trick of combining an appreciation for high art with an utter lack of snobbery. This unabashed love for the music makes it hard to see him actually wrestle with the decision; aside from one interesting scene where he seems to be asking a cellist who survived the Holocaust permission to enjoy Wagner's music, the topic of anti-Semitism occasionally seems to come up in interviews out of obligation more than as a matter of real difficulty. The decision he ultimately makes is seldom in doubt.

It would be easy for that aspect of Wagner to overwhelm the entire production, which would miss the point that he is more than just a few ugly magazine articles and a truly repugnant fan. "Wagner & Me" is a basic primer fit for a BBC or PBS afternoon slot, though far more charming than most.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24433&reviewer=371
originally posted: 12/21/12 19:54:58
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  DVD: 30-Apr-2013



Directed by
  Patrick McGrady

Written by
  Patrick McGrady


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