Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Wagner, Tony Palmer’s epic television biopic from 1983 that fascinates and infuriates in equal measure yet remains never less than astounding.
Wagner is a giant, unwieldy beast. Eight hours devoted to the German composer, from the age of 35 to his death. Its sheer length allows the screen to play house to his politics, his person and his loves all within the frame of his music. Yet is enacts a precarious balance between the epic and the personal, between reverence and irreverence and between high art and high camp. Indeed, at its centre is not Wagner, nor Richard Burton who portrays the composer, but director Tony Palmer who grapples with the material throughout, sometimes succeeding and sometimes falling flat on his face.
Palmer’s best known works prior to making in Wagner in 1983 were two music related pieces from the late sixties and early seventies. The first was All My Loving, an Omnibus documentary on the then current rock ‘n’ roll scene complete with interviews from the likes of Pete Townshend and Pink Floyd. The second was a co-directed effort entitled 200 Motels, the co-director being one Frank Zappa, also the subject of this video-shot psychedelic “recreation” of life on the road. Both are idiosyncratic delights, the former a genuine classic, the latter only deserving the cult equivalent of that title. Yet whilst neither seemingly has a great connection with Wagner – certainly not thematically – it is possible to detect identical directorial impulses in all three works. Indeed, given the composer subject and general irreverence, it’s hard not to detect an element of Ken Russell in this television work (Russell likewise being the strongest factor in all of his films, no matter who the subject), though in many ways Wagner seems odder if a little less bold.
Consider the casting, for example: on the one hand we have such British greats as Burton, Laurence Oliver and John Gielgud, yet on the other there’s Ronald Pickup, Arthur Lowe and, bizarrely, Liza Goddard. It’s a pattern repeated throughout, veering wildly from one end of the spectrum to other. One scene plays as comedy, the next as drama. Another is heavily stylised (sometimes embarrassingly so), and then followed by one shot in straightest of manners. The are obvious references to Hitler and then the wonderful subtlety of the soundtrack recording courtesy of the great conductor Sir Georg Solti. Indeed, the both the film and screenplay play like a first cut and first draft respectively, complete with longuers and non sequitors and as such it’s near impossible to get a complete handle on it.
So is it any good? Of this I’m not entirely certain. The PR which accompanied this review disc proclaims various snippets of hyperbole from 1983, yet there are many who hate it. It’s a work that left me both stunned and befuddled in equal measure, but never bored. Everything about it is so variable (except for the music and Vittorio Storaro’s photography) that little truly impresses save for the brief, fleeting moments and the occasional cameo (Gabriel Byrne, here making his debut, deserves a mention). Yet for all its messiness, it is a quite remarkable cumulative achievement, whilst the flaws only make me want to go back and give it another consideration. I may grow to utterly dislike it, but then I may also absolutely love it, either way it’s a fascinating eight hours.
Made for television, Wagner was shot in 4:3 format, a ratio that is maintained here. The picture quality is largely agreeable considering its age, with the colours being especially rich even if there are signs of intermittent damage. Certainly, there is nothing here that will distract the viewer, though there is an obvious room for improvement. The soundtrack allows for the original mono (two-channel) and is likewise demonstrating a little age (the occasional slightly muffled line of dialogue) without truly disappointing. Indeed, the music comes across especially well as should be expected. Sadly, the extras are sadly limited despite the scope of the main feature and amount to little more than a handful of biographies for Wagner and various cast members. Though detailed these can’t help but disappoint.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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