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Piano virtuoso, serial collaborator and self-declared genius, Jason Beck is a singular figure on the music scene. Fully immersed in his outsized alter ego of Chilly Gonzales, this Canadian cult star blurs the lines between rapper and classical composer, performance artist and punk provocateur. He also has strong Berlin connections, making German first-time director Philipp Jedicke’s documentary portrait Shut Up and Play the Piano a natural choice for a Berlinale world premiere.
Unabashed about his “professionally Jewish” thirst for wealth and fame, Beck knows the promotional value of a contentious soundbite and a knowingly contrarian pose. Hence this documentary, which is heavy on swagger and attitude, but light on personal revelation. That said, Shut Up and Play the Piano is a polished snapshot of Beck’s well-rehearsed shtick, as fast-moving and entertaining as the man himself. Long-standing fans will learn little of substance here, but curious newcomers should enjoy the ride. Beyond its film festival run, home viewing platforms seem a more likely launchpad than theaters.
Even more than his keyboard skills, humor is Beck’s main selling point. As a lyricist, he specializes in witty, rude, tongue-twisting wordplay, firing off scabrously funny lines like some freakish hybrid of Eminem and Sacha Baron Cohen. But he also dabbles in chamber music, plays with symphony orchestras and runs a residential “Gonzervatory” for aspiring young players. There is a more thoughtful agenda behind his cartoonish “musical supervillain” persona.
Shut Up and Play the Piano interweaves contemporary interviews and performance footage with archive video from Beck’s personal collection, plus a handful of artfully fictionalized episodes. There are amusing clips of his early alt-rock band Son, plus some riotous flashbacks to bohemian Berlin in the grungy late 1990s, where Beck relocated with an entourage of fellow Canadian expats including outlandish porno-punk rapper Peaches. In Berlin, he perfected his Machiavellian stage persona Chilly Gonzales and hosted a press conference declaring himself “president” of the city’s fabled underground music scene. Footage of that conference, part satirical prank and part publicly stunt, features in the film.
Swapping Berlin for Paris, Beck embraced his softer side on his 2004 album Solo Piano, which opened doors to a broader range of co-productions and collaborations with star names including Jane Birkin, Charles Aznavour, Jarvis Cocker and Drake. While in Paris, he also broke the Guinness world record for continual solo piano performance, playing over 300 songs in 27 hours. In 2014, Beck won a Grammy for his work with French electro-pop superstars Daft Punk on their smash hit album Random Access Memories.
Shut Up and Play the Piano is a brisk, boisterous story-so-far of Beck’s musical career, but frustratingly sketchy on details and chronology, especially in its latter half. It is also thin on secondary interviews, with old Canuck friends Peaches and Feist doing most of the talking. A mischievous subplot in which Beck auditions amateur actors to play him in the documentary, underscoring his belief that his media image is a largely fictional construct anyway, is an inspired idea which never quite achieves liftoff.
Jedicke is also hamstrung by Beck’s injunction not to include any “private situations” in the film. He talks briefly about his father, a poor Jewish immigrant from Hungary who got rich by founding one of Canada’s biggest construction companies, and his older brother Christophe, a prolific Hollywood score composer whose credits include the Hangover franchise. Armchair psychologists might draw glib conclusions here about the roots of Beck’s ambitious, competitive nature. But there are no deeper insights into his personal life or off-duty self. The mask is all encompassing. The performance never ends.
All the same, Shut Up and Play the Piano is never boring, drawing its energy from Beck’s knowing blend of motormouth bombast and flamboyant showmanship. It climaxes with live concert footage of the sweat-drenched star rapping and crowd-surfing to the accompaniment of a full symphony orchestra. A preposterous spectacle, but admirably ambitious and highly entertaining. Life is a comedy-punk cabaret, old chum.
Production companies: Rapid Eye Movies, Gentle Threat
Cast: Chilly Gonzales, Sibylle Berg, Peaches, Adam Traynor, Leslie Feist, Jarvis Cocker, Lena Buhl
Director: Philipp Jedicke
Producers: Stephan Holl, Antoinette Koster
Cinematographers: Marcus Winterbauer, Marcel Kolvenbach
Editors: Kenk Drees, Carina Mergens
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales company: Charades, Paris
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