Grand Piano Review: Chaos and Classical Music

Don’t mess up. This is all on you. You can’t afford to make a single mistake.

Few things are as daunting as performing in front of a live audience, and these thoughts are often the most common to run through the minds of even the most confident performer. After all, when all eyes are on you, there’s no room for mistakes, right?

But those who have performed know that it’s perfectly customary to make mistakes, and that no matter how many times one might slip up, so long as they press forward, the audience will never know the difference. That is, unless there’s a gunman in the audience with a sniper rifle ready to fire a bullet into your head as soon as you make a single mistake.

Such is the precarious position accomplished concert pianist Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) finds himself in Grand Piano, the latest from director Eugenio Mira. A unique and unrelenting thriller, Grand Piano is a well-paced and hectic ride that uses its classical music backdrop to great effect.

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The brilliant pupil of eccentric pianist Patrick Gordeaux, Tom has found himself in a strange position in his career. After failing miserably while trying to play one of the most difficult music pieces ever written, Tom stepped away from the limelight, too ashamed to further pursue his career. It was at his wife Emma’s (Kerry Bishe) insistence, however, that Tom agreed to a comeback performance that would seek to re-establish him as a serious performer worthy of the legacy of his late teacher.

After dealing with crippling stage fright and insecurity, Tom finally finds himself at the piano, the familiar patterns of the keys returning to his fingers. As he begins playing, things slowly start to come back to him. We see confidence slowly creep back into his abilities.

Then he sees the note.

Play one wrong note and you die is scrawled across his sheet music in red marker, interspersed between bars. At first, Tom thinks it’s a sick joke played on him by the other performers. Once he obtains an ear piece and hears the voice of his harasser (John Cusack), however, things become all too real, and Tom finds himself literally playing for his life.

Cusack’s performance as the maniacal Clem is a great mix of menace and cool confidence. Many scenes throughout the film involve Tom talking with Clem while on stage, playing his music while bargaining for his and his wife’s lives. Throughout the film, Clem is taunting Tom, preying on his insecurities, often giving voice to the demons in Tom’s own head. Although Clem’s motives are sometimes a bit muddy, the times when he tries his best to psychologically manipulate Tom are some of the film’s most brilliant.

One key line stands out, however, as either the film’s biggest flaw or greatest strength. Early on, while demonstrating to Tom how powerful he is, and attesting to the fact that he could kill anyone in the audience without anyone realizing, Clem says something along the lines of “you’d be surprised what you can get away with when nobody’s watching.” Now, this line was interesting and confusing for two reasons. One, it’clearly shows a flaw in the villain’s reasoning. Why shoot a concert pianist in the spotlight when everyone’s eyes are on him? Certainly there would be major consequences to that, no? Two, it also demonstrates exactly how unhinged Clem’s character is. If he wanted to, he probably could kill Tom’s wife in the audience, and it would take a minute for people to figure out exactly what was going on. That alone is what kept me curiously engaged. Had the movie just contradicted its own logic? Or, had it just demonstrated exactly how flawed Clem’s reasoning was? Without getting into spoilers, allow me to mention that this very line plays a major role in the film’s plot development.

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Admittedly, the sharp tension initially set up in the beginning fades as the plot wears on. Not to the point of disinterest, but it becomes harder and harder to fear for Tom’s life throughout the film.Predictability plays a large factor in this; many of the film’s developments will be seen coming from miles away, whether because of the film’s ham-fisted foreshadowing in the beginning, or because it appeals to thriller tropes and cliches. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the initial rush does fade over time as the movie wears on, shifting from one scenario to the next and gradually losing steam.

Expository dialogue weakly sets up the premise of the film as well, especially in one particularly egregious scene in the beginning involving a phone interview with a radio station. Knowing all that rides on Tom’s success is important, but not when it’s so clearly spelled out to the point of becoming insulting.

You’ll also need to buy into a fair amount of suspension of disbelief, including a performer being able to talk to a madman while rapidly playing intricate piano pieces, running off stage while an orchestra continues to perform, and, well, the premise itself is a bit ridiculous, to be honest. However, the film makes up for its missteps by fully embracing its subject and attempting to simply have fun with a wickedly exaggerated scenario that only those with the worst stage fright could ever possibly dream up.

The presentation of the film really works well to sell the tension and give one the sense of being back stage of a major classical concert. Beautiful and inventive camera angles capture Tom’s expressions in the reflective surface of the piano, panning shots across the audience and orchestra give the event a grand feel, and fast, tight music played in the concert blends well with the action, constantly shifting from being the main focus of a scene to enhancing another. There’s even a particularly interesting scene backed up by the song “Motherless Child” that felt especially poignant.

Sometimes goofy and always eccentric, Grand Piano isn’t likely to become a smash hit or a shining beacon of innovation. However, there’s a fair amount of fun to be had in its intrigue, and its well-paced narrative is nothing if not unrelenting. “What if I mess up?” is always one of the biggest fears to run through a performer’s mind, and seeing it played out to the total extreme is fun, unique, and gripping in all the right ways, making Grand Piano a well-crafted thriller.


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