Despite some structural flaws, Pianoforte is an interesting documentary on the music industry and the competition within it.
As someone who has been playing the piano since before I can remember, Pianoforte immediately appealed to me. As someone who loves documentaries, I was also looking forward to seeing how this film would use the documentary form to tell its story. Long story short, a documentary on a pianoforte competition sounded like the perfect film for me. More importantly, there have not been many movies that focus on the current landscape in classical music, which still remains mostly unknown to the general public, which makes the entire premise of Pianoforte even more exciting.
Pianoforte focuses on a few young pianists from all over the world who partake in a highly respected and very competitive piano competition in Warsaw. As the documentary goes on, we see everyone go through the many different rounds that make up the legendary International Chopin Piano Competition which is immediately set up as the chance of a lifetime for all of those who participate in it. From their practices to the competition backstage and, finally, to the very stage where they perform, the audience gets to know the various characters and their ambitions to the tone of Chopin’s music.
Pianoforte begins on a black screen while we hear a voiceover talking about sound: eventually, as the visuals come in, we see the pianists preparing to play as they sit in front of the piano stool before the opening credits roll. I loved the beginning of the documentary as it brilliantly sets up the stakes of the piano competition, soon explained by the intertitles, and introduces some of the key characters of the documentary. However, much of the rest of the film is structurally flawed. As the competition progresses, there are too many cutbacks to the past, showing the characters’ lives and practices before the competition starts.
While this is key to connecting with them, I wish the documentary would have kept a more linear storyline to elevate the pace and stakes of the film. It could have also benefitted from a clearer storyline. It is interesting to follow various pianists during the competition, but it gets too messy too quickly as it does not allow us to fully understand nor connect with the characters on screen. During Pianoforte, the audience is also often told how the pianists had to make a lot of sacrifices to make this dream happen, but we hardly ever see it in the film. I wish we had seen more of the actual challenges the characters and their families faced leading up to the International Chopin Piano Competition.
Pianoforte delivers a fascinating analysis of a world most of the viewers know little about. I found the analysis of the competitive aspect itself very interesting as it is not something we often associate with art. While the International Chopin Piano Competition may be everything to the characters in this documentary, most of us have hardly even heard about it. This is why I wish we got more of an insight into the competition itself as it is the very focus of this documentary. As the film went on, I could not help but wonder how exactly the different rounds worked, which would have made us understand the importance of the competition better as we kept hearing about it.
I also wish we had heard from the judges, as this would have helped us gain an insight into the elimination process. When present, the interviews with the subjects in Pianoforte really work, especially with the families of the contestants, which is why it would have been great to see more of it. The International Chopin Piano Competition is set up as a ruthless competition where a high number of people gets cut every round, but this is not entirely clear to those who do not know much about classical music. And it somewhat remains unclear even to those who are familiar with the industry as we do not see any performance in full and, therefore, can neither root for nor judge the contestants.
Pianoforte also touches on the job instability in the music industry, which is a real problem many musicians face just like the pianists in the documentary. I appreciated that the film did not shy away from showing the inherent flaws of the industry, but I would have liked to see a little bit more of this in it.. I could not help but notice that there were only two women in the competition who made it to the final rounds, which could have been a good opportunity to discuss gender inequality in the music industry.
Ultimately, I kept feeling like Pianoforte could have done a lot more with its plot and focus on the International Chopin Piano Competition. Its compelling premise still makes it a fascinating film for those in the audience who are interested in classical music and in a competition that focuses on the people who will most likely be the future big names in the industry. While the structure of the film is not perfect, I enjoyed following the subjects of the documentary through the competition and finding out which of our protagonists passed on through the next rounds.
Pianoforte will be released in US theaters on December 1 and on Apple TV and Prime Video on January 9, 2024.