Directed by Eugenio Mira
You wouldn’t necessarily expect a film made in Barcelona, Spain about a concert pianist to feature references to John Hughes and The Rock-afire Explosion band, but Grand Piano manages to squeeze them in anyway. Outside of those playful nods, director Eugenio Mira crafts a real-time thriller centered around a single performance that might mean the difference between life and death.
Set in Chicago and taking place at the Antoine Michelle Hall (get it?), Grand Piano follows the incomparable Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), a gifted pianist returning to the stage after a five year absence brought on by a disastrous performance of “La Cinquette” – known also as the unplayable piece. To add to Selznick’s nerves, the Piano Concerto he’s performing will be played on the same Imperial Bosendorfer piano he choked on previously; to add even more stress, Tom opens the scorebook once onstage to find a message in all red capital letters, “PLAY ONE WRONG NOTE AND YOU DIE.”
Once Selznick is forced to rush abruptly off the stage to secure an earpiece, the threat proves real as the voice of John Cusack assures him that, yes, a Rochester 47 sniper rifle is pointed at not only him, but also his lovely celebrity wife, Emma, who watches on from the balcony above. Learning the true meaning of stage fright, Tom is forced into playing the unplayable piece again by Cusack who claims he’s actually Selznick’s late mentor, Patrick. He informs Tom that the last four bars of “La Cinquette” will unlock something secret that he wants desperately.
Cusack is really just Tom’s anxiety personified, allowing him to play to perfection simply because he has no other choice. He tells Tom that he’s really just a “genius puppet” but that he’ll be remembered because of his extraordinary talent. Cusack’s hitman wants to be remembered as well and sees this night as his opportunity to get in the record books himself. “You’ve got a gift; I’ve got a vision” he whispers to Tom as he reveals his real plan.
Although Elijah Wood is in almost every scene, actually plays the piano, and exhibits a perfect blend of fright and determination throughout, the true star of Grand Piano is Victor Reyes, the composer who wrote an entirely original score for the film. Working closely with the director, Mira and Reyes painstakingly crafted a piece of music that allowed for orchestral breaks to free Wood’s character to move about the auditorium when necessary. Additionally, the music serves as the actual soundtrack to the story and each arpeggio and every strike of the bow is used to serve and compliment the film’s quieter moments while the orchestra leaps into action when things start to ramp up. The music guides the action and the entire sequence of events is timed to match the multitude of notes making for a very special sonic experience.
Adhering to a strict animatic that exactly matched up with Reyes’ score, Mira uses continuous shots that move from close-ups of Wood and his hands to slow pans to the audience and elsewhere throughout the theatre. Using odd angles and even split screen in one sequence, Mira adds a Hitchcockian flare to his composition of shots. Inspired by silent movies that viewed each frame as a painting, the structure and choice of Mira’s shots create the immersive experience necessary to keep the intensity up when almost every actor is stationary. The shot choice accentuates the anxiety Tom is feeling onstage and quick inventive cuts moving from a throat-slash to a fast-moving cello bow, for example, keep Grand Piano feeling fresh even though it’s a throwback to the past in a lot of respects.
From the moment the Piano Concerto begins, Grand Piano is shown in almost real-time, leading to a final confrontation with Tom and the man with the gun, but you’ll have to watch for yourself to see if they ever see each other face-to-face. It’s more psychological horror than a straight up-and-down thriller, and the film feels classy and contemporary throughout. Grand Piano also really makes you wish that you would have kept taking piano lessons when you were a kid, but hey, it’s never too late, right?
4 out of 5