Judd Apatow sent shockwaves through the critical community when he popularized the sentimental comedy a few years ago; after the release of Knocked Up, people were proclaiming him Hollywood’s new King of Comedy. Yet since that time only three brief years ago, Apatow has done little to develop the genre beyond shoehorning in a comedic and spawning several crappy imitators; give audiences two friends, alienate one, toss in a girl, and write some sappy climactic make-up speech and BAM! you’ve got the next sentimental comedy. Thankfully, Russian filmmaker Radu Mihaileanu pushes the boundaries of this fledgling genre with his newest film, The Concert. Everything here is feel-good wrapped in a veneer of sophistication—classical music, Paris, redemption, closure to lifelong quests— and it all crescendos to an appropriately harmonious climax in the film’s closing concert. Unlike the sentimental comedies we’ve watched to this point, with their primary focus on the protagonist’s need to mature and his consequential outgrowing of friends, Mihaileanu gives us a story of a disgraced artist overcoming the government that failed him, an orphan finally learning of her family history, and the redemption of an artistic culture largely overlooked by the international community since Perestroika.
We first meet Andrei Fillipov while he neglects his janitorial duties in favor of conducting an orchestra from afar, in the nosebleed seats of the Bolshoi orchestra’s music hall. Thirty years before, he stood at the front of the very stage he now stalks, a head conductor and musical genius, but all of that changed after his refusal to fire the Jewish members he employed. Now he sweeps the Bolshoi’s halls, perpetually retarded by his own past. After intercepting an e-mail from the world-famous Chatelet Theater, Fillipov makes it his mission to reform his orchestra, travel to Paris under the guise of the Bolshoi, and complete the Tchaikovsky concert that haunts his artistic past. After gathering a band of Jewish and Gypsy musicians, he enlists the solo accompaniment of violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet, whom he appears to idolize for no clear reason. As the concert approaches and the orchestra fails to assemble for rehearsal, questions begin arising about Fillipov’s intent; what is his relationship with the orphaned Anne-Marie, why does he remain adamantly compelled to complete a concert by one of music’s most difficult composers after thirty years of musical retirement, what was his relationship with Lea, the violinist whom he insists Anne-Marie replace? Things swivels perilously near failure before achieving the perfect storm—in the end everything comes together to achieve “ultimate harmony” not unlike Fillipov’s goal with his concert.
The Concert is not without its flaws. By their nature, the subtitled scenes where Russians speak broken French feel clunky and ineffective. Maybe if I had an inkling of understanding for Russian inflection or the French language, these exchanges would seem funny or cute, but for the most part they unintentionally come off as lazy foreign translation. Most of the film’s comedy derives from its ragaband team of musicians; the gypsies run around town night and day, heedless to their conductor’s call for order and rehearsal, the old Jews show up late and bicker amongst each other. It’s not bad comedy—it just feels like unnecessary fodder when compared with the main narrative’s beat and fully developed characters. Despite these few problems, The Concert is a comedy in the truest sense of the word—captures all the wonder of classical theater—leaving audiences with an immense sense of joy and a smile on their face.