For true lovers of classical music, it’s not enough just to listen. Movies let you experience the music along with stories and the magic of the screen. Whether they follow the lives of composers or use the music as a unifying theme, it adds another dimension to be enjoyed.
The music plays many roles in the movies on this list. It can be the driving for rivalry and bitterness, passion and jealousy, healing and connection in stories from dramas to horror to romantic comedy.
Gary Oldman heads a star-studded cast that includes Isabella Rossellini and Christopher Fulford in the story of our namesake composer Ludwig van Beethoven. The portrait isn’t always a flattering one, with Oldman portraying his volatile emotions — including his legendary vindictive streak — and often tumultuous life. The story revolves around the mystery of the Immortal Beloved, the unnamed woman Beethoven wrote three passionate love letters to. Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé plays Anton Felix Schindler, Beethoven’s friend who is left to unravel the mystery after his death. The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Georg Solti, perform the music in the film, along with soloists Murray Perahia on piano, Gidon Kremer on violin, and the Juilliard String Quartet. (Available on YouTube or Apple TV)
Fantasia was a big gamble for Walt Disney, but it was a project that was close to his heart. It was only the third animated feature for the studio. The project began as a short, but production costs soon led Disney to realize he could only recoup his investment in a feature. He devised a format of multiple segments, each set to classical music. Leopold Stokowski conducts, with seven of the pieces performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Between each segment, Master of Ceremonies Deems Taylor, a prominent music critic and composer in his own right, introduces the next part. With WWII raging at the time, box office was limited on its 1940 release. But, in the intervening years, its reputation has grown, and the movie has been re-released several times. (Available on Disney+ and Amazon Prime)
In this drama based on a true story, Robert Downey Jr. plays journalist Steve Lopez. One day, he walks by Nathaniel (Jamie Foxx) playing the violin on a sidewalk in Los Angeles and recognizes his gift. Nathaniel tells him he once went to Julliard, but as Lopez later finds out, he didn’t finish his studies. Lopez wants to write a story about him, and helps him leave the streets in the hope of a fairy tale ending. But, Nathaniel’s problems are real, and the story acknowledges the difficulties of living with schizophrenia as well as the healing power of music. The movie is based on the true story of Nathaniel Ayers, a musician whose schizophrenia led to homelessness. (Available on YouTube, Amazon Prime or Apple)
Miloš Forman’s 1984 biopic about the life of Amadeus Mozart was a smash hit. Peter Shaffer adapted the script from his play of the same name, describing it as a “fantasia on the theme of Mozart and Salieri” rather than a standard biography. Replete with the composer’s music, the movie is set in Vienna. The plot invents a bitter rivalry between the older court composer Antonio Salieri and the young upstart Amadeus, and both stars F. Murray Abraham (Salieri) and Tom Hulce (Mozart) were nominated for an Oscar. Abraham won for Best Actor. The movie grossed over $90 million, and cemented poor Salieri as a jealous murderer in the pop culture psyche. It may be the most fun classical movie pic based at least somewhat in reality. (Available on YouTube or Apple TV)
The Red Violin
Directed by François Girard and starring Samuel L. Jackson, The Red Violin is a story inspired by a legendary musical instrument — the 1720 Red Mendelssohn made by Antonio Stradivarius. The real instrument (last sold for $1.7 million) does feature a red stripe on its right side. The movie follows a mysterious red violin as it enters the lives of generations of people, spanning four centuries and five countries. It begins in Cremona in 1681, travels to Vienna in 1793, then Oxford in the 1890s, Shanghai in the 1960s, and Montreal in 1997. The movie’s soundtrack was composed by John Corigliano, and the solos are performed by famed violinist Joshua Bell. (Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube and Apple TV)
The world of classical music blends with horror in this thriller about a rivalry between cellists. Charlotte is a talented musician, the pet pupil of Anton, the head of a music academy. When her mother falls ill, she has to leave the prestigious music school to care for her. Years later, her mother passed away, Charlotte reconnects with the academy in Shanghai, and befriends Lizzie — the new star cello pupil who’s taken her place. What ensues is a tale of over the top rivalry and bloody revenge worthy of a night on the couch with popcorn. The plot takes lurid twists and turns, and into places you’ll never suspect. The story ends with the force that drives the plot — the music. (Available on Netflix)
The Song Of Names
Director François Girard makes the list a second time in this drama based on the power of music to bear witness. When World War II puts his family in Poland in danger, young Dovidl Rappaport takes refuge with the family of Martin Simmonds in London. Tim Roth stars as Martin, with Clive Owen as Dovidl in a story based on the book of the same name by Norman Lebrecht. Dovidl grows up as the boys enjoy a typical brotherly combination of friendliness and competitiveness. Dovidl continues his studies at the violin, and reaches the eve of his first major concert. Then, he disappears… Martin tries to track him down decades later, unravelling a story about loss where music, culture, and memory are intertwined. (Available on Amazon Prime, YouTube and Apple TV)
Mahler On The Couch
The 2010 German film is based on facts. Alma Mahler, wife of Gustav, and Walter Gropius, architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, did have an affair. Gustav Mahler did meet with Sigmund Freud in 1910 in Holland. But, of course, no one knows what they spoke about. The movie imagines the rest, based in part on Alma’s diaries, which talk about Gustav’s demands that she quit her own musical composition. The story is funny and skews the Viennese culturati of the day. Mahler’s music is played by the Swedish Radio Orchestra, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. (Available on Amazon Prime)
My Father’s Violin
My Father’s Violin (Babamin kemani) is a Turkish film by director Andaç Haznedaroğlu. Eight-year-old Özlem lives with her father, a poor street musician named Ali Riza. Riza becomes ill, and when he finds out it’s terminal, he tries to reconnect with his brother Mehmet. Mehmet is a famous concert violinist, and the two brothers have been estranged for many years. He grudgingly takes on responsibility for the girl. The violin and the music become a way for the two to connect in a story that explores healing deep-seated family wounds. The music in the movie was composed by Taskin Sabah. A bonus is a glamorous look at the city of Istanbul. (Available on Netflix)
Falling For Figaro
Operatic dreams mash up with rom-com delightfulness in this movie set in the Scottish Highlands. Danielle Macdonald plays Millie, a talented fund manager who does what many dream of — she ditches an unsupportive boyfriend, packs up and leaves for Scotland to train as an opera singer. Joanna Lumley plays the embittered ex-opera singer who takes her under her wing. Yes, there are romantic ups and downs with Max, a rival opera student, and of course, there is a singing contest. There are also genuine laughs, and some lovely singing of Puccini, Verdi, Mozart and others by Australian opera performers Stacey Alleaume and Nathan Lay. (Available on Netflix)
Get the daily arts news straight to your inbox.