Review by Camden Ferrell
For the last several decades, the International Chopin Piano Competition has been held every five years. It is one of the most prestigious classical music competitions, and it’s a showcase for some of the most talented young pianists in the world. Jakub Piątek’s gives us an intimate look at the 2021 competition in his documentary Pianoforte. This movie premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, his second movie to do so. This is a straightforward yet entertaining documentary that gives a spotlight to emerging young talent among the backdrop of a stressful yet rewarding competition.
The competition takes place in Poland, and the film gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the competition and what each of the contestants go through during this time. The film primarily focuses on a handful of pianists from all over the world as they navigate the competition and their own personal lives. This premise is one that will interest fans of classical music or those who enjoy the spirit of competition and unmitigated passion.
The narrative structure of this documentary is very conventional, but it works for the story that is being told. It’s a straightforward story that is easy to follow and told in a simple and linear manner. This allows the film to properly capture the contestants’ mindset and behavior at each individual stage of the competition. As candidates begin to get eliminated, it’s easy for us to root for the subjects of this film as we see them grow and try and prove they’re the best. Piątek plays it pretty safe as a director, but it’s ultimately to the film’s benefit.
The subjects that we follow are all unique and interesting in their own ways. Viewers will likely find at least one contestant with whom they can relate. Even if you don’t relate to them, it’s easy to see how passionate they are about their craft, and when someone loves what they do that much, it’s hard not to be invested. I was most invested in Hao Rao, a young Chinese pianist as he travels across the world with his longtime teacher. He perfectly captured the familiar combination of dynamic and confident onstage presence and the critical and reserved player offstage. Each contestant brings something new to the table, and the documentary balances them well, to prevent the film from feeling slow and oversaturated in certain areas.
Obviously, a documentary of this nature should have good musical scenes, and it does for the most part. The works of Chopin are classics to the entire world, and it’s fascinating to see these young players perform them. However, I feel like these scenes aren’t nearly present enough in the film. We get plenty of insight into their lives offstage, but the scenes of their performances are mostly abbreviated more than I would have appreciated. Clearly, it’s senseless to include entire performances in a movie, but it definitely could have been more fleshed out.
Pianoforte is a simple yet effective documentary about one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world. We get a glimpse at some of the most impressive young musicians around today, and it gives audiences an idea of what they’re going through at every stage of the competition. We revel in their success, and we empathize with their missteps. It’s an entertaining documentary more than anything, and it is a strong showcase of Piątek’s storytelling abilities.
Pianoforte is in theaters December 1.