1981-1990DramaTony PalmerTVUnited Kingdom

Tony Palmer – Wagner (1983)

Wagner is a giant, unwieldy beast. Eight hours devoted to the German composer, from the age of 35 to his death. Its sheer length allows the screen to play house to his politics, his person and his loves all within the frame of his music. Yet is enacts a precarious balance between the epic and the personal, between reverence and irreverence and between high art and high camp. Indeed, at its centre is not Wagner, nor Richard Burton who portrays the composer, but director Tony Palmer who grapples with the material throughout, sometimes succeeding and sometimes falling flat on his face.

Palmer’s best known works prior to making in Wagner in 1983 were two music related pieces from the late sixties and early seventies. The first was All My Loving, an Omnibus documentary on the then current rock ‘n’ roll scene complete with interviews from the likes of Pete Townshend and Pink Floyd. The second was a co-directed effort entitled 200 Motels, the co-director being one Frank Zappa, also the subject of this video-shot psychedelic “recreation” of life on the road. Both are idiosyncratic delights, the former a genuine classic, the latter only deserving the cult equivalent of that title. Yet whilst neither seemingly has a great connection with Wagner – certainly not thematically – it is possible to detect identical directorial impulses in all three works. Indeed, given the composer subject and general irreverence, it’s hard not to detect an element of Ken Russell in this television work (Russell likewise being the strongest factor in all of his films, no matter who the subject), though in many ways Wagner seems odder if a little less bold.

Consider the casting, for example: on the one hand we have such British greats as Burton, Laurence Oliver and John Gielgud, yet on the other there’s Ronald Pickup, Arthur Lowe and, bizarrely, Liza Goddard. It’s a pattern repeated throughout, veering wildly from one end of the spectrum to other. One scene plays as comedy, the next as drama. Another is heavily stylised (sometimes embarrassingly so), and then followed by one shot in straightest of manners. The are obvious references to Hitler and then the wonderful subtlety of the soundtrack recording courtesy of the great conductor Sir Georg Solti. Indeed, the both the film and screenplay play like a first cut and first draft respectively, complete with longuers and non sequitors and as such it’s near impossible to get a complete handle on it.

So is it any good? Of this I’m not entirely certain. The PR which accompanied this review disc proclaims various snippets of hyperbole from 1983, yet there are many who hate it. It’s a work that left me both stunned and befuddled in equal measure, but never bored. Everything about it is so variable (except for the music and Vittorio Storaro’s photography) that little truly impresses save for the brief, fleeting moments and the occasional cameo (Gabriel Byrne, here making his debut, deserves a mention). Yet for all its messiness, it is a quite remarkable cumulative achievement, whilst the flaws only make me want to go back and give it another consideration. I may grow to utterly dislike it, but then I may also absolutely love it, either way it’s a fascinating eight hours.

4.08GB | 7h 50m | 544×400 | avi

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Subtitles:English for hard-of-hearing, .sub format

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