PICK Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts: The composer keeps his private life private

Director Scott Hicks (Shine) must have felt some temptation to make this documentary into something like a fourth "Qatsi" film, so compelling is the combination of Philip Glass' music with images—just about any images, from the roller-coaster ride that opens the movie to shots of the windswept Nova Scotia beach where Glass keeps a retreat. What he gives us instead is a warm, domestic, but unsaccharine view of the sole living concert-music composer whose name comes anywhere near being a household word. Everyone who follows contemporary music knows Glass' career, and the legends are touched on here: his thoroughly conventional musical upbringing (Juilliard, study with Nadia Boulanger), his dramatic about-face (the '60s SoHo art scene, study with Ravi Shankar), the forming of his own Philip Glass Ensemble (playing in lofts and galleries, not recital halls and conservatories), his unglamorous day jobs on the way up (plumber, cab driver), and his Janus-like status as the most-performed and most-reviled composer of the past few decades. The 71-year-old's private life, though, has not been at all part of this legend (I hadn't even known he was married), and Hicks' deft interweaving of these two spheres is what makes it all seem so fresh. Such is his film's agenda-free modesty that there's no big-picture discussion of Glass' impact on music history—though there is a hint, with the onscreen appearance of the composer's assistant Nico Muhly, recently anointed Next Big Thing by New York City institutions from the Times to the Met, of Glass' role as the forefather and empowerer of all those currently active young composers who unapologetically draw on any damn idiom they please, from techno to Chinese opera. The film's story thread follows the birth of two works, Glass' Symphony No. 8 and his opera Waiting for the Barbarians, and Hicks' great gift to music-loving moviegoers is a straightforward, non-jargony, demystifying, illuminating examination of how pieces get made, from pencil on score paper to opening-night standing O.

 
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