'Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A forced attempt to turn family history into a statement about deafness.
9/13/2019

Irene Taylor Brodsky's documentary follows her deaf son's attempt to learn Beethoven's famous piano composition.

Not the kind of documentary a person likes to admit having hated, Irene Taylor Brodsky's Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements wraps parenting, inherited disability and elder care into an intimate portrait, then throws in history's most famous deaf genius to raise the stakes. But while it has much of the aesthetic polish we'd expect from HBO and a Peabody-awarded filmmaker, the doc plays like a home movie that snowballed, causing its maker to overestimate her subject's relevance to the outside world. Though parts of it will certainly resonate within the deaf community (assuming it is made available with closed captioning), the film has little of the philosophical appeal of other docs on this topic, and sometimes seems willfully solipsistic.

Taylor Brodsky's first film was 2007's Hear and Now, which drew plaudits at Sundance and elsewhere. It followed the late-in-life decision her parents, both of them deaf, made to have cochlear implants. This film starts by observing that, having skipped one generation, the Taylors' deafness visited the director's son Jonas, arriving around the time he was learning to speak.

But Jonas got implants at the age of 4, and as a result lives much like any other kid. As long as he has his sound-processing devices plugged in, he hears well enough that you probably wouldn't notice. Having taken piano lessons from an early age, he decides at 11 that he wants to learn a piece his teacher thinks is beyond his skills, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Taylor Brodsky leans into this with all her weight, wrapping the composer's onset of deafness into her son's experience, commissioning sentimental, watercolor-style animation of young Ludwig — and, since Sonata No. 14 has three movements, using that structural conceit for her film, though if you take out the title cards, few viewers would ever guess such a structure was intended.

The film's primary narrative follows Jonas through interminable piano lessons as the restless, inattentive kid tries to convince his long-suffering teacher he's playing the sonata better than he is. Caught at a personality-development stage most of us are surely grateful not to have immortalized in an HBO production, Jonas is just a regular boy dragging his feet through something he claimed he wanted to do. And outside of paid music professionals, nobody outside his family should be forced to witness it.

More universal and more poignant is the experience of Jonas' grandparents, Paul and Sally. Implants did not change their lives tremendously, it seems, and we watch them gently scold Jonas, urging him to be less sloppy when he uses sign language to communicate with them. Paul, a retired engineer, predicts that it won't be long before technological and medical advances more or less vanquish deafness (well, for those who can afford them). The topic of deaf culture and one's choice to participate in or leave it are raised peripherally here, but not much explored.

Paul begins to suffer cognitive impairment over the course of the film: We watch him struggle to remember simple things, sometimes admitting the difficulty and sometimes objecting. A scene in which his daughter decides she can no longer let him drive a car with his grandchildren is a sad moment many viewers will recognize.

But these are really two different stories that meet only by happenstance. Paul's dementia has nothing to do with Jonas' grousing about having to practice at the keyboard. And try as it might, the doc can't convince us that Jonas' choice of material says something profound about the disability he experiences in a way Beethoven could hardly have imagined. Toward the end, the film presents deafness as an option — a "superpower," even — that Jonas may choose to embrace from time to time when he wants to tune things out. It seems safe to say Beethoven didn't see things that way.

Production company: HBO Documentary Films
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky
Producers: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Tahria Sheather
Executive producers: Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller, Patty Quillin
Directors of photography: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Nick Midwig
Editors: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Bill Weber
Composer: Dylan Stark

89 minutes