out of Five
Running time: 93
Pianomania has a likeable subject and offers a fascinating insight into the perfectionism involved in piano tuning and the behind-the-scenes preparation required for a piano concert but the structure of the film is often frustrating and some background history wouldn't have gone amiss.
What's it all about?
Directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Pianomania follows Steinway piano tuner Stefan Knupfer as he fine-tunes pianos for a series of concert pianists, including Alfred Brendel, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Lang Lang. The majority of the film concerns Knupfer's relationship with Aimard, as he spends an entire year meticulously preparing a piano for Aimard's upcoming recording of Bach's "Art of the Fugue."
Watching someone expertly performing a complex and difficult job can be both rewarding and fascinating, particularly in documentaries. That is very much the case here, as Stefan brings new meaning to the word perfectionism and uses a variety of intriguing tuning techniques, such as bouncing a tennis ball off the piano strings. He also reveals the part played by physical space, temperature and the pianist's own playing style in determining each tuning, noting that a piano tuned perfectly for one venue will sound completely different in another.
Stefan is an extremely likeable character, displaying good humour and extraordinary reserves of patience, most notably when Aimard indicates he wants both a big sound and a little sound, or informs Stefan that he wants the piano to sound like a clavichord, an organ and a harpsichord. By welcome contrast, all Lang Lang seems to require is a decent piano seat and the cameras dutifully follow Stefan all around the building, Spinal Tap-style, until he finds one.
The main problem with the film is that its structure is often frustrating – there's no voiceover and there are no to-camera interviews, so we learn nothing about Knupfer's background, such as how he came to choose his profession in the first place. The film is doubly frustrating if you're tone deaf, as it's difficult to tell the differences before and after the tuning (despite the multi-layered soundtrack) and if you have no interest in pianos, piano tuning or classical music then the film is basically like watching an Austrian Niles Crane tune a piano for 93 minutes.
Pianotuning is a fascinating insight into perfectionism in general and piano tuning in particular. Worth seeing.