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STRAVINSKY: ONCE AT A BORDER (TV)(director: Tony Palmer; cinematographer: Nicholas D. Knowland; editor: Graham Bunn; cast: Nadia Boulanger (Herself), Jean Cocteau (Himself), Robert Craft (Himself), Kyra Nijinsky (Herself), Marie Rambert (Herself), Madame Vera Stravinksy (Herself), Igor Stravinsky (Himself); Runtime: 166; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Paterson; Isolde Films; 1982-UK)
“The well-crafted, lucid documentary is a superb biopic, which is made extraordinaire by the presence of Stravinsky himself to shed light on his thoughts and career and travels.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Acclaimed British documentary filmmaker Tony Palmer (“Primal Scream”/”Margot”/”The Space Movie”) paints a detailed biographical portrait of the Russian-born and much traveled composer/pianist/conductor, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who identified himself as an “inventor of music” and was considered by many to be the most influential composer of 20th century music. It includes invaluable archive footage (those early years in Paris in 1910 where he composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and later his residence in Clarens, Switzerland, where he lived until 1920 and composed The Rite of Spring), documents, vintage photographs, interviews with contemporaries, friends, and associates (like Robert Craft, who managed his career in the States), family (three surviving children and his second wife Vera), and most importantly Stravinsky himself acts as a tour guide to his life. The film also includes performance excerpts from many of his great works, including Les Noces (heard here, for the first time in its original scoring), Petroushka, The Rite of Spring and it ends with a joyous Stravinsky conducting his Firebird ballet score.

The well-crafted, lucid documentary is a superb biopic, which is made extraordinaire by the presence of Stravinsky himself to shed light on his thoughts and career and travels. Those either new or familiar with the composer should appreciate it for its rich, no-nonsense, tantalizing and fully detailed presentation of Stravinsky as a man and musician; and while not a film for the masses, it’s still accessible for those interested in gaining a little culture. It traces his life back to his childhood in Saint Petersburg, where his Polish father, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and a bass singer at the Mariinsky Theater, introduced him to the art world at an early age. It traces how his country treks in childhood influenced a peasant side to his music and his scholarship provided him with an avant-garde intellectual music, one that ironically combined religious and pagan themes. He’s a man of contrasts, who was a hypochondriac but nevertheless was always sickly and he also was a true believer in religion yet lived a life that had him drinking heavily and carrying on an adulterous relationship from 1921 on with his future second wife. In 1939, he was so depressed he left Paris for America (living in Los Angeles from 1940 to 1948) because within a short span of time his first wife Katerina died of tuberculosis, his mother died and so did his eldest daughter. In 1969, he moved to New York where he lived his last years in luxury at Essex House. He died of pneumonia at age 88 and was buried in Venice on the cemetery island of San Michele.

Acknowledged as a man “of his time,” his innovative music even though it broke new ground was still continuous with the traditions of classical music. Stravinsky, a naturalized American citizen in 1945, even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The well-researched film provides rare insights into his life, and is a must see for music lovers.

It won the Special Jury Prize at the San Francisco Film Festival.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”