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Wagner & Me

Release Year:         2010
Studio:         First Run Features
Format:         B&W/Colour; Widescreen; NTSC
Rated:         Not Rated
# of Discs:        1
Running Time:          89 Minutes
DVD Release Date:         April 30, 2013
Presenter:         Stephen Fry
Director:         Patrick McGrady
E:Top Picks Rating:         9/10

First Run Features Write-up:   
Can we (and should we) salvage Richard Wagner’s spectacular music from its embrace by Adolf Hitler? In WAGNER & ME, English actor and raconteur Stephen Fry attempts to answer this question while exploring his own passion for history’s most controversial composer.

With the witty and charming Fry as our guide, this surprising film is a provocative yet enjoyable look at Wagner’s life – and his ‘stained’ legacy.

Jon Ted Wynne Review:   
Stephen Fry is a much-beloved wit, storyteller, presenter, writer and actor. He’s also fanatically in love with the music of Richard Wagner.

So what? Lots of people love Wagner’s music. Some would say there is nothing grander. Adolf Hitler would’ve concurred.

And that, more or less, is the premise of WAGNER & ME.

Although it is an interesting premise it is far less dramatically impacting than the creators of this film would hope. For one thing, Wagner was long dead when Hitler came along. True, they are ideologically connected in that Wagner was a pronounced anti-Semite, but so was half of Europe. What Hitler saw in Wagner’s music was an artistic symbol of Nazi ideology, but Wagner had nothing to do with it. To suggest that Wagner’s music is inextricably linked with Hitler and National Socialism is like equating the music of The Beatles with Charles Manson and his “family”. It’s more a question of what a sick mind can do to exploit something already powerful and meaningful by layering onto it a perverted agenda (albeit, in Wagner’s case, with the blessing of his family).

And that, perhaps, is arguably a story of much greater resonance and interest. Problem is, the story of Wagner’s family’s relationship with Hitler has already been captivatingly told in Tony Palmer’s far more weighty study “The Wagner Family,” a film deemed so damning by the Wagner family that they have attempted to launch a law suit against Mr. Palmer (to no avail, it seems).

Further, any dramatic potential in exploring Fry’s guilt (he is Jewish) at finding so much enjoyment in Wagner’s music is quickly neutralized by observing his boyish sense of wonder at being in Bayreuth (the home of the Wagner Festival) and taking part in behind the scenes exercises like watching rehearsals, observing costume fittings (the Valkyries are more fun without Tom Cruise) and discussing Wagner’s considerable contribution to music with various musicians. The film is unfocused in its intent in this way. For anyone who loves (at least some of) Wagner’s music (as I do) can separate the music itself from the claims of Nazism and even the sympathies of Wagner’s widow and children.

Remember the play and subsequent film of “Amadeus”, which showed Mozart to be a braying little brat who, despite his moral failings (much to rival Antonio Salieri’s chagrin) was a musical genius of unparalleled achievement? The premise is more or less the same, if one can accept, for argument’s sake, the comparison of a propensity for telling dirty jokes to fanning the insidious flames of racism.

In the end, it’s the music that counts, which is the conclusion reached in WAGNER & ME. Were anyone inclined to feel guilty over their spine-tingling reaction to the opening chords of “Tristan & Isolde” for example, there is no need, we are assured. If Stephen Fry can separate the two, so can we. Where the film is maybe a tad anti-climactic is the assertion that we require Stephen Fry to tell us that.

Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Fry is an impeccable, fun and good-natured host. A true gentleman, I’m inclined to politely listen to what he expounds, on the subject of Wagner, at least.

Ultimately, it is Wagner’s glorious music – performed on the ultimate Wagner stage (actually, under it) – that really boosted my appreciation for the film. Definitely worth seeing, but not as revelatory as intended, WAGNER & ME is perhaps more of an indulgence than a thought-provoking essay. But it has the virtue of being fun, and how often can you that about Wagner?