John Adams – “Adams on Film”

Hail Bop! – A Portrait of John Adams

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 20 January, 2002
Venue: Cinema One, Barbican, London

Filmed in 1997, in the run up to John Adams’s 50th birthday, Tony Palmer’s film “Hail Bop!” was originally shown, cut to about half, on ITV’s “South Bank Show”. Tony Palmer introduced this second complete showing of his film at the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Adams Weekend, and started with one of the most extraordinary and preposterous exclamations of sour grapes I have ever hadthe misfortune to witness.

Artistically draped in a Tom Baker-as-Doctor-Who scarf, Palmer professed not to have known what to say until he saw a banner proclaiming “BBC – the Arts are our business” as he came into the Barbican Centre. “I’d just like to say that that is not the truth” he started. So who, mighty filmmaker, for the first time in this country was showing your film in its entirety, not just once, but twice? The BBC! Who, self-appointed guardian of the arts in Britain, single-handedly puts more money into classical music in this country? The BBC! When Palmer rails against the BBC because they rejected his independently-produced film (produced, incidentally, by a company now gone bust) because they didn’tthink – at the time – that John Adams was a ratings winner, Palmer simply expounds his own bitterness and makes his other comments dubious.

While not a particularly good film, “Hail Bop!” is often very funny. The interchange at the beginning between Adams and pianist Emanuel Ax, rehearsing for the world première of Century Rolls, was hysterical, the two personalities being so warm and generous. Peter Sellars, instantly a caricature of himself, bent his fingers in origami-like fashion while characteristically slightly over-egging the importance of art in commenting upon political realities, while librettist Alice Goodman was studied in speech, her deliberate, slow vocal patterns certainly sounding as if she was being profound. It was interesting to compare the filmed Goodman, in jeans with feet up on a settee, with the live one who had given the pre-concert talk with Adams before The Death of Klinghoffer on the first night of the weekend. The revelation on screen that during the writing of Klinghoffer she had converted to Christianity explained the dog collar she wore at the talk.

While there was a lot of information packed into the 98-minute film, the result was rather cluttered, with glaring incongruities that were heightened by the total immersion in the weekend events, which provided a much more considered view of Adams’s development. A resplendent New York skyline at night (thankfully not showing the World Trade Center) was the visual backdrop to an excerpt from Grand Pianola Music (which was fine), but Adams was talking about the dream he had of a tanker blasting off into space, which was the inspiration for Harmonielehre. The title of the film was not properly explained, Adams mishearing a comet’s attribution as “Hail Bop” – in fact, the astronomers were Doctors Hale and Bopp – nor that it’s also the name of the third movement of Century Rolls.

Then there were the music examples, all perfectly well played – mostly by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic under Edo de Waart – but filmed in a way which, cumulatively, becamewearing on the eye and irritating. In an attempt to provide contrast, the players – only ever seen in sections (rather like the mirrored images in Charlie Drake’s famous one-man orchestra sketch seen on BBC-2 on Christmas Day) – were filmed against a black background, but lit harshly from one side so that not only the instruments but the players’ skin seemed to shine!

Michael Collins fared little better in his commanding rendition of Gnarly Buttons, Adams’s clarinet concerto. If a film has any real interest in live music it should – however passively – want to encourage its audience to experience music live. To falsify the idea of what an orchestral concert is like is to deny the viewer the potential next step in his or her enjoyment of the film’s subject matter. The shots we did get of real concerts – Adams’s late-night Prom with the London Sinfonietta in 1994, I think, and thepremière in Cleveland’s Severance Hall of Century Rolls – were of applause only. I realise the problems (especially with American orchestras and musicians’ unions) about filming live events, but some effort would have been worth it.

A curate’s egg then – annoying and delightful by turns – but ultimately only good because its subject matter was good, not because it was a good film.

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