Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
I would bet any amount of money that Grand Piano (2013) ended up on my Netflix queue because it was written by Damien Chazelle, director of the Oscar-nominated Whiplash. I forgot this some time between adding it to my queue and watching it last week, so it ended up being a pleasant surprise, a fanciful premise executed in a self-aware style.
Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, a former concert pianist who retired five years ago, after the death of his mentor. His wife Emma (Kerry Bishé), a famous actress, persuades him to make a comeback. But during the performance, he receives a message from an unknown assassin: if he plays a single wrong note, he and his wife will be killed by a sniper (John Cusack) hiding in the wings. It’s a silly premise, so I was skeptical when I read the Netflix description. Before he goes onstage, Tom has a heart-to-heart with the conductor (Don McManus) in which he expresses his fears about “choking” when he plays a particularly difficult piece. The conductor assures Tom that he will play wrong notes, but it’ll be fine because the audience will never know.
Of course the real point of this conversation is to foreshadow the fact that playing wrong notes will shortly become a life-and-death situation. During the performance, he turns a page and sees the words “KEEP PLAYING” written in ominous red marker on his sheet music. I love that Chazelle and director Eugenio Mira came up with such an economical way to deliver this information to us and keep the concert scenes suspenseful at the same time.
The payoff is satisfyingly clever as well. The notes scrawled on Tom’s sheet music direct him to sneak off to his dressing room during a long rest in the music. He finds a small earpiece through which the villain can talk to him without anyone knowing. (I’ll refer to John Cusack’s character as “the villain” throughout since he’s essentially nameless, although he’s billed as “Clem.”) The villain then explains to Tom that the piano is a safe containing Tom’s dead mentor’s fortune, and that the “combination” is the last four bars of a supposedly “unplayable” piece written by the mentor. The only two people in the world who could play this piece were the mentor and Tom, so now Tom has to play it flawlessly in order to open the safe for the villain. If Tom plays a wrong note, both he and his wife, who is watching from an opera box, will be shot.
As much as I love this outlandish premise, it has one big flaw: the villain and Tom essentially want the same thing. Mira establishes early on that Tom doesn’t have to play every note correctly for the concert to be a success. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to, and the film spends so much time telling us what a genius he is that we’re convinced he’s more than up to the task. Tom is also adamant when he says to the villain that he doesn’t care about the money or want any of it for himself. So it’s unclear why Tom wouldn’t simply play the piece correctly, just like the villain wants. But the story quickly becomes more complicated than a simple “will he or won’t he,” gliding us right past that plot hole into the genuinely suspenseful third act.
Like Whiplash, Grand Piano explores the idea of musicians being physically endangered by their art, but this isn’t a slice-of-life movie whose protagonist is dealing with blistered hands; Tom gets smashed in the face with a rifle butt and ends up hanging (and falling) from the catwalk above the stage. In fact, Grand Piano feels very much like a modern-day Hitchcock thriller. It has a tone of danger but not melodrama. The villains are clever but subject to the vagaries of technology—at one point the earpieces malfunction, allowing Tom to overhear the villain’s conversation with his henchman (Alex Winter). The hero is troubled and resourceful. There’s even an icy blonde who raises the stakes for the hero but otherwise is window dressing. Mira is a young director with an inventive style, and I’m always happy to see someone breathe new life into the old-school thriller.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.