Any time spent with the erudite actor/writer Stephen Fry is a pleasure, and therefore the documentary “Wagner & Me,” in which Fry spends nearly 90 minutes contemplating his passion for the music of Richard Wagner, flies by as if on wings. But though Fry’s not above babbling like a plummy-toned fanboy (and knows it, which makes him all the more charming), this isn’t a simple cinematic love letter. Wagner was a professed anti-Semite, his descendants were closely tied to the Nazi movement and Hitler was one of the composer’s biggest fans. Fry, himself a Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust, is troubled by these associations and embarks on a journey through the composer’s life, in the hope of finding some closure.
We watch Fry, invariably clad in incongruously bright trousers, awed by the grandeur and history of the Bayreuth Festival and its theater, designed and built by the composer. (He mimes conducting there, and dissolves into giggles. “I feel like a child in a sweet-shop,” he enthuses.) In Nuremberg, where Hitler led rallies that featured Wagner’s music, he sits and muses, “deeply uncomfortable,” carefully forming his thoughts aloud. He listens, rapt, as a pianist plays Wagner on the composer’s own piano, chiming in with the final note (endearingly getting it wrong). And he talks to an Auschwitz survivor, a musician herself, who wonders why Fry needs to go to Wagner’s shrine to hear his operas (“Why can’t you just listen at home?”), but who encourages him to make up his own mind.
Ultimately, the music that Fry first heard as a child “on my father’s gramophone” comes first for him, and much of the pleasure of “Wagner & Me” is that Fry lets us see how art transforms him. There is, nonetheless, some unresolved discord for him, to borrow some music lingo used in the film. Fry describes Wagner’s work as a beautiful, lavish silken tapestry with a stain on it. “For some people, that stain ruins the whole work,” he says. “For others, it is just something that you have to face up to.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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