Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts Review

Documentary portraits don’t necessarily have to be about famous people to be interesting, and they don’t have to be impartially objective either, some of the best films of this type arising out of a bond and connection that arises between the filmmaker and his subject. It certainly helps a filmmaker find an audience however if his subject is well-known, and in the world of music there are few composers alive today with as interesting a profile as Philip Glass. Now 70 years old, the composer’s output is still something quite phenomenal, composing for film, the opera and concert hall, making and supervising recordings of his substantial back catalogue of work and regularly touring the world with his Ensemble, playing concerts of works that are physically very demanding for any musician. For Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts, a documentary to commemorate the director’s 70th birthday, Scott Hicks would spend a year with Philip Glass, documenting this astonishing work schedule, as well as getting in close with the man’s private home life.

For anyone unfamiliar with Glass, or who perhaps only know of the composer for his numerous film scores, Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts covers a great deal of his early background and musical career in the form of interviews with friends and family who are happy to present anecdotes and photographs of Philip, covering his unconventional rise from a movement of anti-establishment artists in New York’s Soho area during the 1960s to becoming one of the world’s foremost modern composers. This period has been well-documented elsewhere, Glass himself talking often about the days when two or three people would turn up for his performances or of audiences walking out and even becoming violent when confronted by his music, as well as how he had to find work as a plumber and a taxi diver even while his first opera Einstein on the Beach premiered at the Metropolitan Opera. What is fascinating here however is seeing some old movie footage, still photos and memorabilia from this period, with even an old school music composition where the young boy received a C- grade being dug up. Along with his conventional schooling as a musician and the unconventional path he later followed, relearning notation from scoring music for Ravi Shankar, this does provide a good indication of the influences and background that would lead to Glass’s unique and instantly recognisable minimalist music style that is more rhythmic than simply repetitive.

The vast majority of the film however shows Philip Glass juggling family life between New York and Nova Scotia – with a new young wife and very young children – while simultaneously composing a film score for Woody Allen, writing his 8th Symphony and the finalising the score in preparation for the premiere of his opera Waiting For The Barbarians, taking time off in-between to perform in Australia. When asked how he manages to cope with it all, Glass reveals the secret of his philosophy as “you get up in the morning, you work all day”, and when pressed about whether there are musical ideas constantly rolling about in his head and how he manages to find the time to put inspiration down on paper, Glass responds with a “Who the hell knows?”, preferring to work only when he chooses. Describing music as “a mystery” that needs to be heard rather than discussed or intellectualised, this may not seem like the kind of revelations that fans of the composer might be looking for, but it is revealing nonetheless, showing a man who is generous, determined, driven, works hard, is fiercely intelligent and is totally dedicated to whatever drives him to score his music on the page. What is evident also is that he carefully manages people within his environment as well as he controls his own work.

Seemingly granted complete access-all-areas to Glass’s home life and work over the period of an entire year, there’s always the danger then of Hicks getting too close to his subject and indeed being too in awe of his subject to be able view him objectively or reveal some of the negative sides of the man, but I never got this impression while watching the feature. Some things are left unsaid or not spoken about, but the hints are there for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. And if the film is perhaps not all that thrilling and intellectually rigorous on the music theory and the act of performance as Peter Greenaway’s 4 American Composers film on Philip Glass, that would seem to me to be more down to the fact that Glass’s work has changed considerably since that time and his modern symphonic and opera work is certainly not as musically interesting or radical now as the Glassworks, Music in Twelve Parts and Dance pieces performed with the Glass Ensemble for the Greenaway film.

The choice of background music throughout Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts is however an excellent reminder of the astonishing catalogue of works composed by Glass that will be familiar for anyone who has even watched even one evening’s worth of television advertisements and program trailers. Excerpts from Satyagraha, Einstein on the Beach, Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, The Thin Blue Line, Mishima and Glassworks however remind the viewer that much of Glass’s best work – a fact openly recognised here by the composer himself – has been in written when working in collaboration with the likes of other unconventional visionary artists like Robert Wilson, Allen Ginsberg, Godfrey Reggio, Errol Morris and Paul Schrader. If much of Glass’s more modern works don’t reach the same heights of controversy and inspiration, the fact that he still regularly performs many of his older works with his Ensemble, even playing live accompaniments of his film scores (not to mention a quite stunning new production of his best opera Satyagraha last year for the ENO and the Met), is however a reminder of the enormous vitality of his work. Regardless of whether his more modern works are quite as appealing, Glass: A Portrait in Twelve Parts does show the artist’s continued commitment towards expanding musical horizons and even if it doesn’t succeed in revealing the secrets of how his music is derived, it goes some way to illuminaing the many facets of the man behind the work.


Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts is released in the UK by Drakes Avenue. A 2-disc set, the film is presented on a dual-layer disc, with the majority of the extra features on a second dual-layer disc. The DVD is in PAL format and region-free.

Presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, there’s not a great deal to say about the film’s presentation on DVD other than it looks fine and pretty much exactly the way it should. The documentary would appear to have been shot on Digital Video and is fairly clear and detailed throughout, but it doesn’t look like high resolution HD. There are no presentational issues at all to draw attention to either for praise or criticism – the transfer is perfectly functional and appropriate for the content.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 and, even though a documentary, the surround track works rather well giving good separation to the excerpts of Glass’s music that play in the background throughout the film. In a documentary context Glass sometimes mumbles words and names, but generally dialogue is fine and clear.

There are no subtitles and no hard of hearing captions on the DVD.

Disc One extra features include a Trailer (2:40) and a number of Deleted/Extended Scenes (22:26) including a distracted Laurie Anderson and some indication that there’s something a bit “production line” about some of Glass’s work – something I think many have suspected in regards to his soundtracks. There’s also a full Director’s Commentary which I haven’t yet had the opportunity to sample, but intend to as I suspect that it could be very interesting.

Disc Two includes an abundance of extended Interviews and Performances that will delight the Philip Glass fan.

The Gramercy Park Hotel (40:08) interview covers Glass’s earliest musical experiences and training – Juilliard, great depth and anecdotes on studying Nadia Boulanger – and the later inspiration of Ravi Shankar, leading up to the formation of the Ensemble. The Tibet House (28:31) interview looks at the composer’s interest in spirituality, in Buddhism and Shamanism, and how he maintains a healthy mind and body, considering as a part of this music as a force – where it comes from and the writing process. In the Met Opera House (24:46 and 15:51) interviews, Glass discusses his work with some of the collaborators who have taken his music to a new level and how he balances work with family commitments.

Extended performances of Philip Glass works include Metamorphosis (23:16), a solo piano performance in Melbourne; Einstein on the Beach (4:36), a ballet performance with Leigh Warren and Dancers in rehearsal with the Adelaide Vocal Project; Orion (37:11), with the Philip Glass and his Ensemble going all 1 Giant Leap with international musicians – a wonderful documentary performance film in its own right; and Dracula (6:44) with Glass and Reisman rehearsing with the Kronos Quartet for the new score to accompany Todd Browning’s 1931 version of the film with Bela Lugosi.

Granted unprecedented access to both the private and public life of the composer over the period of a year, Scott Hicks’ documentary feature Glass: A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts may be more built around the ordinary, everyday domestic life and commercial pressures of the composer, but as with Glass’s work itself – the title of the film taking its name from one of the composer’s works – initial impressions of simplicity are deceptive. If the film seems somewhat mundane and unrevealing, it perhaps must necessarily be so when any artist talks about the music they create or when any filmmaker attempts to draw a connection between the artist and their creation. For Glass, like the music then, perhaps the answer lies within the receptiveness of the audience. Glass: A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts may seem repetitive, mechanical and unemotional but if you’re a fan of the composer’s work you’ll realise that there is much more than repetition to the complex layering of ever evolving and changing parts, that it is capable of exerting a force all of its own, and Hicks documentary likewise seems to add little details that reveal a much wider portrait of the man.
The UK 2-disc DVD release of Glass: A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts is simply outstanding, with a fine transfer and an essential collection of extra features, interviews and performances that, for any fan of Glass, may even surpass the qualities of the film itself.

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