The details of Ludwig van Beethoven’s life seem scripted for a movie. He was a child prodigy who struggled with an overbearing father, a hopeless Romantic whose love was unrequited and he suffered the ironic fate of being a musician who went deaf. Filmmakers have noticed. In conjunction with WQXR’s Beethoven Awareness Month, we’ve compiled our top five films featuring Beethoven.
1. "Immortal Beloved"
Gary Oldman plays the composer in the biopic "Immortal Beloved," which searches for the women to whom Beethoven’s mysterious love letter was addressed. While some bits are true (Beethoven did write the letter in 1812, signing it “Forever thine, forever mine, forever us”), much of the rest was left to artistic license. The maestro’s music is realized in a soundtrack featuring Murray Perahia, Yo-Yo Ma, Bryn Terfel, Emmanuel Ax and Georg Solti conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.
2. "Un Grand Amour de Beethoven"
It didn’t take long for movie studios to embrace Beethoven as a subject. In 1936, the great French filmmaker Abel Gance (best known for the silent-era spectacle Napoleon) directed "Un Grand Amour de Beethoven" (The Life and Loves of Beethoven"), which juxtaposes the composer’s life — albeit an idealized one of a tortured artist — to selections from his catalogue of music.
3. "Copying Beethoven"
Ed Harris dons a messy wig to play a credible Beethoven, who is struggling with his demons and the score to his Ninth Symphony, in the 2006 film, "Copying Beethoven." He finds help from a local music student, played by drop-dead gorgeous Diane Kruger, to help him compose what would become his most famous work (artistic licenses are taken in this film as well). The triumphant premiere of the work uses a recording by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
4. "Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure"
The time-traveling dudes Bill and Ted call on the composer during their excellent adventure, and bring him back from 19th century Vienna to 1989 San Dimas, Calif. The composer finds a comfortable seat, playing synthesizers at the local mall before he helps Bill and Ted pass their history class and graduate from high school.
5. "A Clockwork Orange"
Of these five films, Stanley Kubrick’s "A Clockwork Orange" is the only one where Beethoven does not appear in person. However, the composer is present as the main character Alex’s musical idol, and Alex’s favorite piece of music, the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, becomes much more than a leitmotif. The chords of “Ode to Joy” actually motivate him towards gleeful violence, despair and eventually personal triumph. (“Beethoven” is even one of about 10 words that are flashed on screen in the movie trailer, which strangely is accompanied by a synthesized version of Rossini’s William Tell Overture.)