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What's the difference between a piano prodigy and the rest of us?
The documentary A Surprise in Texas follows a handful of entrants in Fort Worth’s prestigious1 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition from their arrival to the final medal ceremony, and while the title refers to the contest’s outcome, the real surprise here is that I actually gave a rat’s ass about what’s essentially a giant piano recital for adults.
The title — not to mention the choice of interview subjects2 and comments made by the Van Cliburn jurors — telegraphs the film’s resolution practically from frame one, but the film’s no less interesting for it. The doc draws strength not from knuckle-biting suspense3 but the talent of its subjects, and the film’s greatest weakness is director Rosen’s inability to see this. Discovering he’s got a real-life Rudy on his hands, Rosen seems content to merely point the camera at the proceedings, a frustrating tactic that succeeds in spite of itself. The contestants’ performances — whether solo, with a chamber quartet, or accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony — are absolutely mesmerizing, and the musings offered by musicians, jurors, and spectators on art and talent provide enough intellectual stimulation to take the film a little bit beyond the Cool Runnings/Mighty Ducks model. But the film could have profited by narrowing its focus to showcase its true subject (you’ll know who we’re talking about immediately) in greater depth.
Potentially interesting issues, such as the sacrifice required to reach the level these musicians have attained or the mental toll of the pressure such a high stakes competition creates, are hardly hinted at through brief scenes of contestants drinking alcohol or forgoing swimming in order to practice. A proper character study on Nobuyuki Tsujii, the vision-impaired Japanese phenom, could’ve been much more fascinating, but shots of his day-to-day life end up cut short to accommodate a half-hearted attempt at casting the contest as something other than a foregone conclusion. Another potentially fascinating, ballsier story thread is hinted at but left intentionally untouched: The disparity between the audience and jurors’ reaction to Tsujii’s performance (a five-minute standing ovation, tearful testimonials to his greatness) and the tepid review written by a local journalist (“one-dimensional,” among other criticisms) suggests that either the jurors scored the contest based on emotions rather than actual ability or the reporter is a total dickweed. Either way, more investigation seems necessary, but Rosen seems reluctant to add any gray to his mostly monochrome feel-good film.
As if watching these talented young musicians (none older than 27) compete for a $20,000 cash prize and a recording contract on a label you’ve never heard of weren’t a depressing enough reminder of how unexceptional most of us are, one juror helpfully reminds us that even the Van Cliburn winners have their work cut out for them, in the grand scheme. “Out of many, many competitions,” he says, “you have a handful that have meant something in the world of music.” Take 1,000 musicians who can play a moving rendition of a Dvorák concerto, and maybe one of them will write something that’s even a tenth as significant. A Surprise in Texas isn’t a great film, but it’s a decent rendition of an old, oft-repeated story. And it’s got a killer soundtrack. •
1 Yes, I think it’s weird to see those three words put together, too.
2 Hint: the filmmakers don’t waste time chit-chatting with losers.
3 Who will it be — the brooding Bulgarian, the steadfast Italian, or the blind Japanese boy whose story is an inspiration to all the jurors and to whom the filmmakers devote approximately three-fourths of the film’s runtime?