Performance is a tricky thing. Once upon a time I knew what that was like, which is why I was eager to see the 2019 film, Coda. Not to be confused with the 2021 Coda starring Marlee Matlin, this Coda follows the story of Henry Cole (Patrick Stewart), a famous concert pianist crippled by stage fright after the sudden death of his wife.
The movie opens with Henry playing a triumphant comeback concert to a sold-out New York crowd. Afterwards, Henry lurches out into an alleyway, where a security guard lights a cigarette for him even though Henry doesn’t smoke.
Once Henry collects himself, he meets with the press, and among them is New Yorker music critic Helen Morrison (Katie Holmes), who is doing an article about Henry and would like an interview. He’s not really into that and politely begs off, but that’s not the end of things.
Helen is among the members of the press who are around to cover Henry buying a new concert grand, and when Henry sits in front of the gorgeous, gleaming Steinway, he freezes. Just before things get awkward, Helen sits down next to him, strikes up the baseline of Bizet’s Habañera, and the two of them play a sprightly duet.
After Helen pep talks Henry into performing one night, Henry’s manager, Paul (Giancarlo Esposito) sets up an interview for her, and the two of them start hanging out. It’s not a romance, although Helen seems to want it to be on a certain level, but she does become Henry’s muse.
All of this is interspersed with shots of Henry hiking around the Swiss Alps and dining alone in his fancy hotel where people stare at him. Henry can’t outrun his formidable presence in the music world, and flinches when he sees his hotel night manager, Felix (Christopher Gaugler) has one of his CDs propped up on a shelf in his office. He’s also periodically tortured by dreams of walking out onstage only to find that some of the keys of his piano have disappeared.
Henry seems caught between wanting to leave his life as a performer behind and embracing that identity. As he tells Helen, dead German composers have been his constant companions, one advantage being that they don’t suddenly disappear.
I really relate to this movie, except for the concert pianist part. I started playing piano at eleven, and while I don’t get as much practice time as I would like, I still enjoy messing around with various pieces, especially classical music. There’s nothing like a good sforzando to relieve the feelings.
It’s not just a matter of skill; emotion is a major part of putting over a song. Performers can be extremely adept at hiding their real feelings, but life events do get in the way and it can throw everything off. Just getting up on a stage and performing at all can be a huge accomplishment, and oftentimes only the performer really knows what it took to walk out there. When I was on tour with the Continentals, there were times I would hop into a show all bright and cheerful even though I was wilting backstage not two seconds before. Yep. The struggle is real.
Coda gets this. It gets the dynamic of performance, particularly piano performance, and the questions that often swirl around before a show starts: Will I mess up? What if I forget something? What if I chose the wrong piece? Are my clothes on backwards? It also understands what a musician usually has to say to the demon those questions rode in on: Kindly step off.
The film also makes a good point about the problematic nature of difference, particularly in the world of classical music, which isn’t exactly celebrated by the culture at large–a lot of times classical music is the stuff of longhairs, nerds, older people, and music students. Even then, it’s what people often play so they can move on to other genres, or at least that’s how a student might begin.
In the classical world, standing out isn’t always a plus, especially since classical music doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of ad libbing or innovation. People who listen to classical music want to hear it played as it’s written, although intonation is still up for grabs. Classical fans are like Trekkies that way. In Coda’s world, Henry often asks, “Why me? Why am I special?”
Music isn’t Coda’s only triggering subject, though. While Henry is dealing with stage fright, he also can’t deny that he’s getting older. Henry contemplates his hands shaking ever so slightly while he drinks a cup of coffee. When Henry goes on a hike in the Alps, he practically collapses at the side of the trail by way of taking a break, huffing and puffing.
Looming frailty is a scary thing for him as a musician, because playing piano isn’t like riding a bike. While a pianist’s head and heart might know how a piece should be played, like any other skill muscle memory is definitely a factor and skills can degrade. For Henry, old age opens up a world that’s completely foreign, empty and unappealing.
Coda is beautifully shot. The colors are bright but not too bright; the saturation is enough to look natural but not entirely real. And there are a lot of tracking shots of the Swiss countryside that made me want to go there and walk those trails.
Patrick Stewart is fantastic as always, although pairing him with Katie Holmes is a little May-December-y. It kind of works, though, considering where the characters end up, but I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to ruin anything. Katie Holmes seems genuinely awed by Patrick Stewart, and I can’t blame her a bit, but she brings her own graceful presence to her role as Helen and Henry clearly respects her.
One thing I liked a little bit less about the film is that it’s got a wee chronology problem. It’s one thing to be non-linear, but in this film’s case, flashbacks and dream sequences and present-day action run together with not much differentiation between them and it can get confusing if one isn’t fully invested. The only real marker is the length of Henry’s beard.
While Coda is not a movie to watch with an eye on the popcorn bucket, it’s an interesting look at the psychology of performance and what happens when a performer feels their usefulness is coming to an end. All the wonderful music is a nice touch as well.
Got a surprise review coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all, and have a good one…
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