Movie Review: Before he was “Lovely Ludwig van” he was “Louis van Beethoven”

And now, here’s a musical bio-pic for everybody who wondered what “Amadeus” would have been like had they left it to the Germans.

“Louis van Beethoven” may sound like the title of a John Belushi “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But it’s a serious-minded “early Beethoven” biography about his years of struggles, his alcoholic singer-father, who kept comparing him to Mozart, when Jean van Beethoven was no Leopold Mozart himself.

“Serious minded” like Beethoven himself, and his music — famous for its drama, dynamic range, complexity, epic themes and romance.

So this film, originally a German TV movie, is almost entirely humorless, with precious little joy springing from the music. Writer-director Niki Stein robs us even of the sentimental cliche, always included in Beethoven bio-pics, of the master at the premiere of his grand “Ninth Symphony,” stone deaf so that he never truly heard Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which he composed for chorus and set to music.

Stein avoids Beethoven’s most famous pieces, the “war horses” of any symphony orchestra’s repertoire, as if he’s afraid of cliches. In so doing, he robs his film of the magic and majesty of “Eroica,” “Für Elise” Beethoven’s “Fifth,” and “Ninth.”

Any wit and mischief is reserved for that brief period when 20ish Beethoven (Anselm Bresgott) meets and tries to study under Mozart (Manuel Rubey), who was a few years older, impulsive, vulgar and too busy womanizing and partying to mentor the future inventor of the “Romantic Era” in classical music.

We meet the old man (Tobias Moretti of “A Hidden Life”) in a coach AFTER the premiere of the “Ninth Symphony,” accompanied by his swooning, romantic nephew (Peter Lewys Preston) who quotes Rousseau and speaks of “revolution,” but whose head is bandaged from a recent failed suicide attempt.

They are going to stay with Ludwig’s wealthy, landed-gentry brother (Cornelius Orbonya) where Ludwig will polish off a last commissioned work or two and impose on the family’s hospitality and fray its nerves. Everything anyone says to him they pretty much have to write down.

This Beethoven has two settings — grump, and almost comically cranky.

But brother Johann remembers the lad the family called “Louis,” the eight year old prodigy (Colin Pütz) who could sight-read anything, outplay pretty much anybody on the harpsichord and the dominant figure of his age at the newfangled “pianoforte.”

His pretentious father (Ronald Kukulies) showed him off shamelessly around Bonn and the future Germany, desperate to curry favor with the entertainment-starved “elector” and other nobility, more desperate to make sure the Mozart comparisons keep coming. Because someday, this kid is going to Vienna.

The boy? He’s serious about the work, takes up composing because that’s what Mozart did at his age, and struggles to supplement his father’s singing/teaching income with work as page turner for the local orchestra’s kapellmeister (and mentor) Neefe, played with sympathy and patience by Ulrich Noethen.

Writer-director Stein gives us three timelines — aged Beethoven, struggling to get paid for serious work, irritated that the commissions for big pieces are drying up. His dry reaction to the arrival of Johann Strauss, “The Waltz King” on the scene is “people are paying good money” for this piffle? He didn’t live long enough to dive into dance music.

There’s the boy, living in a family marked by genteel poverty, struggle and tragedy — dead siblings, and that inevitable moment when “Mother’s coughing up blood” were enough to drive his father to drink — with little Louis trying to make the connections that would drive his art and make his name. A musician/actor/revolutionary (Sabin Tambrea) fond of quoting Mr. Jefferson’s “Declaration” and railing at the talentless, entitled vultures of the ruling classes is a HUGE influence.

The teen-to-twentysomething Beethoven is among those eagerly awaiting Napoleon’s arrival to upset the inbred applecart of feudal aristocracy, when he isn’t trying to get advice from Mozart and currying favor with Haydn. This Beethoven has, of course, an “Immortal Beloved,” the one woman (Caroline Hellwig) who might have been his true love, but from a family which, while supportive of his talent, reminded him she was “out of your class.”

“Louis van Beethoven” has a jump-about episodic style which betrays its TV origins. Information and relationships are introduced which produce a thorough sketch-portrait of the artist in the making.

And the performers and settings are first rate, across the board, although the cinematography lacks the lush, celluloid amber-tinted hues of big screen period pieces like, again, “Amadeus.”

But Stein rather misses the boat when he limits the performance sections to bits of string quartet here, the boy and his teacher Neefe deconstructing Bach, Mozart and others at the keyboard there — the kid tearing up Tellemann or rattling through Rameau.

The reason we celebrate Beethoven is his passion, the reason he was nicknamed the “Lovely Ludwig van” in “A Clockwork Orange” and elsewhere is the grandeur that emerged from so many pieces, the Great Composer does Great Works part of the story. Just a couple of brief orchestral scenes, creating the motifs of the “Fifth,” the “Ninth” or composing at the keyboard other masterpieces would have added pop star thrills to what is, in the end, a dry and and somewhat dispassionate overview of the life and works of Germany’s greatest composer.

No, he wasn’t “Amadeus.” He didn’t waste time womanizing or drinking, but poured his energies into channeling his romantic ideals of freedom and social equality into his music. That doesn’t mean his life can only be viewed and studied at arm’s length, which is all Stein manages here.

MPA Rating: unrated, adult themes, alcoholism

Cast: Tobias Moretti, Colin Pütz, Anselm Bresgott, Ulrich Noethen, Ronald Kukulies, Peter Lewys Preston and Caroline Hellwig

Credits: Scripted and directed by Niki Stein. A Film Movement Plus release.

Running time: 2:06

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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