Glenn Gould may not have been the first rock star of classical music – that designation should probably go to Franz Liszt – but he was certainly the most charismatic of modern pianists. In still photos, especially the famous ones gracing the cover of his 1955 debut album of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," he has, at 22, the surly, delicate handsomeness of a James Dean or Marlon Brando.
The new documentary "Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould" offers up a wealth of moving pictures of Gould, ranging from concert footage and recording sessions to goofy home movies, and his movie star charisma remains amply in evidence.
None of this would matter much if Gould's charisma was not also the engine of his art. This Torontonian prodigy was one of the finest pianists of the 20th century, and his talent and his intensity were all of a piece. No doubt his life was made increasingly miserable because of his phobias and eccentricities, but when he delved into the keyboard, especially when playing baroque composers, he was unparalleled.
As a young boy in the early 1960s, I heard him in one of his final public appearances before he renounced public performances in favor of the recording studio. I've never forgotten it. Playing Bach entirely from memory, his hands fitted in gloves with the fingers cut away, his chair a mere 14 inches high, he seemed both entranced and hypervigilant. He hummed along to his playing, not to show off but because he simply could not contain his passion, his joy.
I'm not sure that Gould's "inner life" gets much of an up-close investigation in "Genius Within," but co-directors Michèlle Hozer and Peter Raymont provide so much footage of him in so many varying moods that we certainly get a wider glimpse into his outer life. Gould remains an enigma, but now he's a more resonant one.
Despite Gould's reclusive reputation, he was startlingly public in many ways. Although he says in the film, "I hate audiences," what he meant was that he hated playing in front of them as if he was a prized pet – a curiosity.
He was, of course, his own greatest audience, but his renunciation of the concert hall was essentially a way for him to strike a cleaner connection between his musicmaking and his listeners, without all the filigree. In the studio, he could indulge his obsession for perfection.
The documentary chronicles a prancing, extroverted side of Gould that Canadians are probably more aware of than non-Canadians. We see him in home movies cavorting on tropical beaches; we hear about his affair with the wife of pianist-composer Lukas Foss, one of his idols; we listen to his adulation of Petula Clark. (He also revered Barbra Streisand, about whom he wrote insightfully.)
Gould also hosted a radio show in Toronto where he discussed everything from religion to politics to sports. He made radio documentaries for the CBC and wrote and starred in a movie documentary about himself. By the time he died in 1982, at 50, he had already passed into legend – and one not entirely of his own choosing.
"Genius Within" doesn't make the mistake of trying to equate Gould's great gifts with his great eccentricities. There are plenty of nutty musicians, after all, who are talentless. But it's an inescapable fact that Gould's singular musical insights – the way he brought out in Bach a mesmeric unity of sound – could only have arisen from a singular personality. He heard things the rest of us couldn't hear, and then, ecstatically, he made us hear them, too. Grade: A- (Unrated.)