Classical music at the movies: 10 great moments in film

Classical music and opera have a special role to play in these scenes.

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In Twilight, heartthrob vampire Edward plays Debussy's Clair de lune to lovestruck ingénue Bella. He could not have failed to impress, having had close to a century to perfect his piano technique. The fact that two teen idols are shown bonding over classical music in this epic PG-rated romance hammers home the fact that classical music really is the soundtrack to our lives, whether or not we can recognise the tunes or identify the composer. The protagonists in the ten films that follow all have profound experiences listening to or attending a performance of classical music.

Quantum of Solace ­(2008)
Puccini: Tosca

It’s nice to know that even an international man of mystery like James Bond takes opera and concert etiquette seriously. “I really think you people should find a better place to meet,” he chides the members of terrorist group Quantum when he catches them whispering and hissing their diabolical plot mid opera. And what a spectacular opera: Philipp Himmelmann’s Tosca at the spectacular open-air theatre in Bregenz, Austria, is a well-oiled machine as slick as one of Bond’s own high-tech gadgets, with its all-seeing eye, presiding over the stage, reminding us that 007 never misses a trick.

Silence of the Lambs (1992)
Bach, Goldberg Variations

Hannibal Lecter has good taste – at least, musically speaking. So concerned was he with the painfully out-of-tune playing of the oboist in his local symphony orchestra that he takes it upon himself to kill and devour the offending musician, almost as a public service benefiting his fellow concertgoers. The serial killer also requests one of Glenn Gould’s recording of The Goldberg Variations to be played in his cell. It is to the strains of the opening Aria that one of the prison guards gets his face chewed off – and a second guard gets clubbed to death – as Lecter makes his escape. Pianist Jeremy Denk describes the scene as “either a stroke of genius or an act of cultural cannibalism… Certainly one of the best face-chewing scenes I can think of”.

The Fifth Element (1997)
Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor

In this quirky science fiction blockbuster, Dallas, the hero (Bruce Willis), attends an opera recital on a luxury cruise ship travelling through outer space. The star attraction is a soprano with a difference: Diva Plavalaguna, a statuesque blue alien whose voice (Albanian singer Inva Mula) is as striking as her appearance. She opens with an eerie rendition of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor before she shows her true vocal colours and otherworldly range in a (digitally manipulated) tour de force.

Philadelphia (1993)
Giordano: Mamma Morta from Andrea Chénier

In this emotional scene, a pale, frail Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) on an intravenous drip is transported from a world of sickness and pain by Maria Callas’s impassioned recording of Mamma Morta. Beckett, an AIDS sufferer, gets lost in the music as he translates and narrates the aria for his lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who looks on, clearly moved. Like the heroine of the opera, Beckett is facing a death sentence.

 

Bleu (1993)
Song for the Unification of Europe

In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s classic French drama, Julie (Juliette Binoche), the widow of the famous composer Patrice de Courcy, is haunted by his last, great, unfinished work (film score actually composed by Zbigniew Preisner) following his death in a car accident that occurred when she was behind the wheel. She finds her way to redemption and forgiveness only when she completes his large-scale, Mahlerian Song for the Unification of Europe with the help of his assistant, with whom she also finds new love.


 
 

La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful) 1997
Offenbach: Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann

What could be more romantic than courtship at the opera in Venice? Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) wills his beloved “Principessa” to look down at him from her box to the lilting strains of Offenbach’s Barcarolle duet, to the discomfort and bemusement of the opera-goer next to him.


         

Titanic (1997)
Nearer My God to Thee 

This hymn is purported to be the last song played by the house band on the Titanic before the ship sank. Director James Cameron captures that moment beautifully when the very committed, stoic string quartet eke it out on deck amid the chaos and rising waters. It’s a testament to the power of music to provide spiritual comfort in times of tragedy and great peril.


Diva (1981)
Catalani, La Wally

Jean-Jacques Beineix’s cult French classic opens with glamorous African-American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (played by Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) giving a highly anticipated solo recital in Paris. This diva has never consented to record live or in the studio, but Jules, an ardent fan in the audience, secretly makes a bootleg of her dazzling Ebben? Ne andrò lontana, the one-hit-wonder aria from Catalani’s La Wally. In a bizarre series of events, however, his pirated cassette becomes the key component in a multifaceted caper involving police corruption, a prostitution ring, and Taiwanese thugs who plan to release the recording on the black market.

Pretty Woman (1990)
Verdi: La Traviata

Prostitute Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) is whisked away to San Francisco in the private jet of her client/suitor Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) to see her first ever opera. She is moved to tears by the courtesan Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata (“The Fallen Woman”), in whose plight she sees her own struggles reflected.

Clockwork Orange (1971)
Beethoven: Symphony No 9
 

In Kubrick’s twisted morality tale, the ultra-violent anti-hero Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is subjected to an experimental, torture-like procedure known as the Ludovico Treatment to cure him of his criminal urges. In a chilling sci-fi sequence, with eyelids pinned back, he is forced to watch an endless stream of violent and degrading images while one of classical music’s most uplifting and edifying works, Ode to Joy (in Moog master Walter/Wendy Carlos’ synthesized version), is looped in the soundtrack. Alex is left with a debilitating, knee-jerk reaction to Beethoven, who happened to be his favourite composer in his carefree days of raping and pillaging. (Nowadays, hooligans tend to opt for Tupac and Eminem.) “It’s a sin, using Ludwig Van like that – he did no harm to anyone!” Alex protests.


 

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Classical music at the movies: 10 great moments in film
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