The intensity of Speed mixed with the classical beauty of Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40” – Grand Piano in a nutshell. I know it’s hard to imagine some type of fruitful marriage between a Keanu Reeves movie and technically masterful key-tickling, but when the increasingly intriguing Elijah Wood is the nervous victim of some gun-toting psycho’s sinister plan, you’ve grabbed my full attention – especially after such a commanding performance in Maniac. Maestro Eugenio Mira conducts a thrilling bit of cinema accompanied by flowing scoring from writer Damien Chazelle, but it’s Wood’s performance that’s most worthy of an appreciative standing ovation. Bravissimo!
Musician Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood) is one of the most prolific pianists of his generation, but after choking on stage much to the disappointment of his audience, Selznick disappeared from mainstream fame. Five years after his captured flub, it’s Tom’s lover Emma (Kerry Bishé) who gets him back on stage, playing a concert on a special piano with personal meaning. Struggling with stage fright, Tom makes his way to the grand stage setting, but upon reading his sheet music he notices a message written throughout. Reading what appears to be a joke, Tom is instructed to play the piano perfectly all night, and if not, Emma’s life will be in jeopardy. Unfortunately for Tom, he quickly realizes the notes are no joke, and he’s introduced to a mysterious voice with a gun and an itchy trigger finger – but can Tom stay perfect with Emma’s life on the line?
Grand Piano doesn’t sport a necessarily tight script – it’s an intriguing yet sometimes bewildering story – but Mira’s brilliant handling of Chazelle musical mystery delivers an unexpectedly polished and thrilling cinematic experience. We’re treated to a classy night out full of tuxedos, lavish dresses, and pleasing musical arrangements played with furious vigor, as Mira’s direction captures the glitz and glamor of our ritzy affair. Stunning set design places Elijah Wood front and center, playing a magnificent instrument, as our penguin suit wearing performer pops vibrantly when set against the red carpeting. Tom Selznick sits alone on the raised stage, put on a pedestal as to highlight the solo performer’s daunting task of perfection resting heavily on his back. For what is essentially a single-setting film, Mira treats his audience to a hoity-toity night at the theater – showcasing true artistry through his very own filmmaking.
Elijah Wood continues his streak of out-of-the-ordinary genre films with Grand Piano, a career path that makes me respect the actor more and more with every wickedly different character. Tom Selznick may not be as memorable as Frank, Wood’s serial killer alter-ego from Maniac, but Elijah handily conveys a nervous, anxious, and jaded musician with limitless talents – and a boatload of insecurities. Just because someone may be the next Beethoven doesn’t mean they’re a gifted performer, as some of the most talented people on planet Earth suffer from similar fears. Achieving perfection may be hard enough already, but once Tom’s new tormentor makes himself present, we truly get to see Wood shine. Each song becomes a battle for survival, with any miscues spelling doom for the lovely Emma, or even worse, himself. We sit on edge waiting to find out if a silenced sniper rifle can provide positive motivation instead of crippling fear, and it’s Wood’s performance that creates a gripping fight with every crescendo and rest.
My problems with Grand Piano stem from a less-than-airtight story that takes a few creative liberties entirely too far. Getting beyond questioning how John Cusack (who plays our evil whisperer) got a high-tech sniper rifle into the show, or how his lackey (Alex Winter) can maneuver around the theater killing people without being discovered, I was left most dumbfounded by an ending that surely wouldn’t have played out similarly in reality. Hollywood magic ties everything nicely, delivering a finite ending, but – well, I’ll stop there. The good thing is, Grand Piano is a worthy production that’s able to overcome such preposterous thinking, but Chazelle’s work does come off as a little half-baked at times.
Grand Piano certainly is no failure, as Elijah Wood has to battle butterflies in his stomach and a gun-waving madman in his ear – talk about stress. Mira’s film is a swanky affair with a sinister twist, an original concept brought to life by Wood’s maniacal playing style. Charming supporting characters take momentary weight off of Elijah, as actors like Don McManus enhance Wood’s own persona, but it’s our leading man who steals every show-stopping second. The body count is low and the action more slow-burn, but most notes end up being on the high side, and we’re thankfully able to enjoy the soothing sounds of Tom Selznick while he struggles to save multiple lives – a fun journey worth the price of admission.
Grand Piano carries style and grace that gives the upper crust of society their own Speed-like adventure.