Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts

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Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — It's easy to believe that composer Philip Glass, whose so-called minimalist works often repeat themselves into transcendence, is a disciplined practitioner of Eastern meditation. But who'd have guessed he bakes mouthwatering pizza? Such are the personal tidbits revealed in Scott Hicks's "Glass," an entertaining pic that will fascinate admirers but is wide-ranging and unpretentious enough to engage those intimidated by Glass' aesthetic. Within the arena of artist-centric docs, theatrical prospects are solid.

Declaring its intentions immediately with scenes of Glass enjoying himself at Coney Island, the movie is at least as concerned with the ins and outs of the subject's daily life as with his place in music history. More so, to tell the truth, much to the probable relief of non-musicologists in the audience. We spend a fair bit of time watching Glass hang out with his family in New York and Nova Scotia (in an idyllic beachside compound with multiple small cabins for artists who come visit) and more among the various spiritual teachers, whose backgrounds range from Taoist to Toltec, with whom he studies.

Glass is no R. Crumb, and he admits that his biggest secret is that he gets up early and works hard, but he's not a bore, either. Down-to-earth and open, he talks about his work in layman-friendly terms. Many of the most interesting anecdotes here are less about the music than the way it entered the public sphere: tales of that much-romanticized period in New York when artists with crazy ideas could live almost for free and make names for themselves without going through normal cultural channels.

Painter Chuck Close, another veteran of that scene, provides some context about those years before going off on an amusing tangent about his famous series of portraits based on a single photo of Glass. The thing that kept him coming back to the image in different styles, we're not surprised to hear, was the fascinating dendritic curl of the young composer's hair.

The doc proceeds through segments devoted to single events like the career-making opera "Einstein on the Beach," to work in progress like "Symphony No. 8," and, of most interest to a film-fest crowd, his prolific career composing movie scores. Errol Morris, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese put in appearances that both entertain and enlighten, and as we watch Glass in his studio we happen to glimpse a scene from "No Reservations" -- which Hicks was wrapping up while shooting this film.

The twelve-part structure, echoing the twelve notes of the chromatic scale and the title of one of Glass's most famous compositions, may sound like a precious conceit, but Hicks for the most part makes it work. Longtime fans might wish, say, for one or two of the segments focused on current work to be redirected toward his more groundbreaking compositions, but the behind-the-scenes appeal afforded by "Waiting for the Barbarians" and "Orion" is some compensation. Whether it will seem doc-worthy or not on its own in years to come, it allows a glimpse of a compositional method that seemingly consists of equal parts artistic inspiration and plain old hard work.


GLASS: A PORTRAIT OF PHILIP IN TWELVE PARTS
No Distributor
Kino Films / Independent Media / Kojo Pictures

Director: Scott Hicks
Producers: Scott Hicks, Susanne Preissler
Executive producers: Kerry Heysen, Roger Sexton
Director of photography: Scott Hicks
Co-producer: Lindsay Skutch
Editor: Stephen Jess

No MPAA rating, running time 119 minutes

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