Michel Petrucciani: Cannes Review

"Michel Petrucciani"
A soulful portrait of an artist who allowed nothing to stand in the way of his embrace of life and his huge talent.

Doc about the French jazz pianist is a clear-eyed, non-judgmental portrait of an artist as a permanent young man.

If you only knew jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani through his recorded music, you’d know this was an extraordinary individual. His phrasing, the electricity of his right hand and the cleanness of his improvisations take jazz to the very heights of artistry. But as many jazz aficionados know and Michael Radfords film Michel Petrucciani will make known to many more, one needs a better word than “extraordinary” to describe this man.

For Petrucciani was born in the south of France with osteogenesis imperfecta — or brittle bone disease — that prevented him from growing beyond three feet and subjected him to a life of pain as bones broke constantly, even as he was playing. None of this caused him ever to stop. He lived life in a rush — “I hate wasting time,” he says early in the film — knowing that with his affliction he would not enjoy a long life.

The film chronicles his overindulgence in food, drugs, wine, women and discarded friends as he raced against time, playing sometimes 10 hours a day and performing over 200 concerts in a year. He died at age 36 in New York in 1999, not so much from his handicap as foolishly going out into a cold New Year’s Eve with his fragile lungs and then catching pneumonia.

Radford has assembled ample footage and interviews with his subject from many friends and other sources along with numerous interviews with colleagues and lovers to pull together a clear-eyed, non-judgmental portrait of an artist as a permanent young man. Even spurned lovers and friends have mostly kindly things to say about a man who so blazed through their lives that they still have a startled, dazed look about them.

Here, clearly, is a charismatic, dazzlingly talented individual that lived every moment to the fullest. His 36 years is more like 72 for anyone else. He even managed to learn fluent, colloquial English in six months.

What the film never says is that music may be what nourished him, that every hour at the piano may have added an hour or more to his life. Another thing the film only barely mentions  is that his deformity, if you will, may have added to his genius. To witness in archival footage the rapidity with which the fingers of his right hand hits the piano keys defies all understanding of that part of the human anatomy. How can fingers move so fast? They don’t seem to with a “normal” person’s hand.

The one great fault with this doc, which makes an ideal film for special runs in art-house venues and, of course, on TV and DVD, lies in Radford’s unwillingness to identify his interviewees. In press notes he claims such identification is “irrelevant.” No, it’s not.

Otherwise though, the film has much to stay about overcoming fate, loving life and living with eternal optimism.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Out of Competition (Special Screening)
Sales: Wild Bunch Production companies: Les Films d’ici/Partner Media Investment/Looks Films/Liaison Films
Director/screenwriter: Michael Radford
Producers: Gunnar Dedio, Martina Haubrich, Serge Lalou, Bruce Marks, Andrea Stucovitz
Director of photography: Sophie Maintigneux
Editor: Yves Deschamps
No rating, 104 minutes