Fulvue Drive-In.com
Current Reviews
In Stores Soon
In Stores Now
DVD Reviews, SACD Reviews Essays Interviews Contact Us Meet the Staff
An Explanation of Our Rating System Search  
Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Music > Classical > Symphonic > The Curse Of The Gothic Symphony (2011/First Run DVD)

The Curse of the Gothic Symphony (2011/First Run DVD)

Picture: B Sound: B+ Extras: C Main Program: B-

What makes First Run Features such an excellent distribution company is its willingness to release films - documentaries especially - that touch on issues or corners of society and culture that other, larger distributors would otherwise ignore. This is especially true when it comes to the arts and a film like The Curse of the Gothic Symphony.

As a chronicle of a long-delayed Australian production of British composer Havergal Brian's Symphony No. 1 in D minor, or the Gothic Symphony, Curse, which was originally released in 2011, is a fairly niche product. Besides being focused on classical music (which will in itself send far too many people running in the opposite direction), the subjects are all local musicians (in Brisbane, not even Sydney) trying to wrangle the work of a minor 20th century composer. But the documentary has a decent hook: the Gothic Symphony is thought to be cursed.

Of course, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brian's composition, broken up into two parts, is notoriously unwieldy, calling for a chorus of hundreds and the equivalent of two orchestras performing for more than two hours. (It's in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest symphony ever composed.) The symphony was written between 1919 and 1927 and has only been performed seven times, beginning with its premiere in 1961. Numerous other attempts at mounting it have failed, fueling the eternal flame of its infernal reputation.

In reality, the curse is just showbiz legend, like ghosts that haunt darkened theaters, and it provides convenient cover for failing to bring all the required pieces together and convincing people to invest tens of thousands of dollars in a staging of a symphonic Rube Goldberg device created by an esoteric composer. And that's the story of most of Curse. Led by Gary Thorpe, a Brian true believer who spent 28 years on an Ahab-like quest to set up a performance of the Gothic, the artists trying to get the performance off the ground in Brisbane meet road block after road block. Curse begins in 2005 and follows the team over a period of five years before finally pulling off the impossible in 2010.

It's a minor triumph culturally, but a major one for the very dedicated people who devoted so much time and energy to lifting the curse of the Gothic - or at least keeping it at bay for a night. (The fact that they had to compromise on how large the brass section was in order to fit into the space they booked hardly reduces their accomplishment.) And while we revel in their triumph, albeit briefly, we never get so tied up in the struggle to feel a sense of joyous relief at the performance. Director Randall Wood never elevates the action to a point where it feels like Thorpe and his team are on a heroic cultural quest. Instead, we get an inside look at the mundanity of fighting for funding and space and wrangling musicians, which in itself has value. But when it comes to the obsession driving these people to create art, or help bring art to life, we're never able to connect with it beyond a superficial level.

Curse comes off as fairly pedestrian because of this low-stakes directing, but that's not necessarily an indictment. The film documents a cultural moment that would otherwise pass unnoticed (both inside and outside Australia) and it's wonderful Thorpe's quest has been preserved – if only to give hope to other musicians and artists who feel driven to exorcise the Gothic of its cursed reputation.

On the technical side, Curse has the feel of a well shot home movie – that is, it comes off like something shot on consumer-grade digital cameras. Put another way, it looks as good as you'd expect from a low-budget film about classical music. Audio-wise, the film doesn't require a lot from its mix. That said, it sounds very good, especially during the climactic performance. In terms of extras, there's not much here, just a photo gallery and a biography of Brian. A copy of the full performance of the Gothic would have been nice - if only just the audio - but there were certainly rights issues that made that impossible.

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


 Copyright © MMIII through MMX fulvuedrive-in.com