Good—actually good—films about classical musicians tend to be elusive. On one hand, movies like Amadeus and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould present compelling depictions of real-life artists, even if they stretch the truth a bit along the way. Others take a purely fictional approach but are nonetheless successful. (The Red Violin comes to mind here.) Then you have films whose intentions may be good, but the results are anything but. (Apparently, someone thought it would be a great idea to make a musical about Edvard Grieg starring Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch.) Of course, there are also some movies that fit into the prestigious “so bad, they’re good” category. This honor is lovingly bestowed upon the fever dream that is Ken Russell’s Lisztomania as well as the amazingly ridiculous Grand Piano, which features Elijah Wood as a concert pianist who will be shot by a sniper if he plays one wrong note. (Seriously, I’m not making this up.)
Directed by Todd Field, Tár has received almost universal acclaim since its release in October 2022. Critics praised the film for its complex and nuanced exploration of power, toxicity, and abuse, with nearly everyone agreeing that Cate Blanchett’s role as the fictional conductor Lydia Tár is one of her best performances. Additionally, Tár has already won several major awards, with more pending—including six Oscar nominations—and was even singled out by former President Barack Obama as one of his favorite films of the year.
With such high praise, this begged the question: would this finally be the classical music film that paints an accurate portrait of the industry, uniting critics, classical musicians, and music lovers in the process?
Tár has polarized, shocked, and even offended the classical music community. Some loved it. Gustavo Dudamel called the film “wonderful” and “very credible,” and praised Blanchett’s conducting. British conductor Alice Farnham applauded Tár for normalizing the image of female conductors. Others weren’t so generous. Mark Swed of the LA Times likened it to “a mean-spirited horror film with a… chip on its shoulder the size of the Hollywood Bowl.” JoAnn Falletta appreciated the craft but had issues with some of the film’s finer details. Leonard Slatkin was also not much of a fan. Most notable and damning of all was the reaction of Marin Alsop, former music director of the Baltimore Symphony and, arguably, the real-life inspiration for some of Lydia Tár’s character details. Alsop derided the film, stating, “I was offended as a woman, I was offended as a conductor, I was offended as a lesbian.” She continues: “To have an opportunity to portray a woman in that role and to make her an abuser—for me that was heartbreaking…. To assume that women will either behave identically to men or become hysterical, crazy, insane is to perpetuate something we’ve already seen on film so many times before.” Yikes. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Regardless, the buzz piqued my interest. Was Tár really that polarizing? I had to investigate.
Several weeks ago, I sat down over Zoom with my good friend Tanner Cassidy—PhD candidate in music theory at UC Santa Barbara—to watch the film and discuss our thoughts afterward (similar to what we did in 2021 with the AI-completed Beethoven 10).
So, what did we think? It’s complicated. The film definitely isn’t terrible, as some of the reactions would have one believe; it’s beautifully shot and marvelously acted and offers some interesting moments and thought-provoking ideas. But, our final assessment was not positive. The film contains numerous flaws—from irritating factual errors to broad, uncomfortable misconceptions—that end up doing a significant disservice to the drama, to the art of conducting, and to the music itself. It was, in a word: disappointing.
Below are some curated excerpts from our almost two-hour Zoom discussion, in which we lament the film’s dismal ending, puzzle over the use of Mahler 5, and reassert our love for Amadeus.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
[Before starting, we chat about our initial impressions of the film.]
Kevin McBrien (KM): So, this movie is getting a lot of buzz right now with the Oscars coming up. Other than Cate Blanchett’s role as this revered but toxic conductor, I don’t know a ton about it.
Tanner Cassidy (TC): I know more about the reaction than about the movie itself. Critics love this movie, from what I can tell. But it seems a bit like a Whiplash or La La Land situation because nobody I’ve talked to who’s in classical music has liked it. I’ve heard reactions from “It was interesting” to “I turned it off after twenty minutes.” I know that people like La La Land because there’s good craft and good drama, even though it gets so many details wrong. I wonder if that’s what’s going to happen here.
KM: And it’s interesting because a lot of these reactions are coming out now, more so than when the movie was in theaters.
TC: The movie bombed in theaters, from what I can tell. It was not marketed or released super well back in October. It’s also factored into a bigger discussion about “the death of cinema,” which is ridiculous. A movie doing poorly is fine; it happens. Again, I know so much about how this movie is functioning in a conversation more than I actually know anything about it.
KM: Right. Well, let’s check it out…
[We watch Tár, and pick up our discussion afterward. Spoilers ahead!]
TC: Man, that ending… It’s like the filmmakers said, “What’s the craziest punishment we can give this person? Oh, conducting Monster Hunter concerts for a bunch of cosplayers in Asia!” That’s ridiculous. And the idea of Tár talking about the “composer’s intent” is a silly question for that kind of music. I mean, come on… So many symphony orchestras do video game scores!
KM: Yeah, the “high art” versus “low art” conversation is just tired at this point. If this movie came out 25 or 30 years ago, we might look at that ending and say, “Bummer, that sucks for her.” But it’s so prominent now. Of course, there are still people who roll their eyes whenever an orchestra programs John Williams, but that seems so much less of an issue now.
TC: Right! Film and video game music are certainly not as prestigious as classical music, but they’re more culturally relevant these days. The ending could have been triumphant in that Tár is punished by losing her titles and her lifestyle. I could see a version where she “has her cake and eats it too” in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re letting the character off for being abusive. That’s something I did like; the movie shows that anybody can be an a**hole and, for much of it, you vacillate between being on her side and being horrified by her. That’s good drama, that’s good characterization. But at the same time, her punishment at the end is… a fulfilling career, and the movie doesn’t seem to think of it like that. The ending is just so disheartening to me.
KM: And in a way, it’s reminiscent of some real-life figures who have been “Me-Tooed” in the US. I think of someone like [Plácido] Domingo, how he is basically done here but is still performing in Europe and South America.
TC: Or like Roman Polanski. The thing the movie doesn’t do—which I’m mixed on—is that it doesn’t clearly confirm or deny that Tár actually did what she’s accused of. We see and hear bits of evidence, of course, but it’s unclear if she’s always acted in a way that’s professionally and ethically irresponsible, or if it’s something else entirely.
KM: Especially with how fragmented the film becomes in the last 45 minutes. I think it’s implied that Tár might be dealing with schizophrenia or OCD, but I don’t know…
TC: Right, with the ringing sounds throughout [implied to be misophonia] and the medications she needs. I wonder if that’s what they were going for. There are cuts where the passage of time erodes, and you could argue that the editing gets more concise to show the fragmentation of her mind and the unraveling of her life. Those are things I usually love to think about—how the editing or the structure of a film marries its content—but I was just annoyed by it this time. [Laughs.] And her fall from grace seemed too quick as well.
KM: Yes! I thought the film was going to focus more on that. I had Whiplash in mind—just the idea of a straight-up abusive authority figure. On one hand, I’m glad this film didn’t do that because that’s uncomfortable in a completely different direction. I liked how it shows that toxicity isn’t always just “violent rage.” It can be small, behind-the-scenes things like microaggressions and slights and biases. But it didn’t end up exploring that in a satisfying way.
TC: And she didn’t need to be a conductor either; she could have been anything. But conductors are just such a great shorthand for totalitarianism—one person with a stick. A stage director has the same dynamics, but I guess it’s not as visually significant. The film also espouses a surprisingly neutral view on cancel culture. It’s like, “This is what it is and this is how it’s bad, but also here are five people who did things and got caught, like James Levine.” It’s trying to go for nuance in a way that I do appreciate, but it doesn’t really end up working. It tries to do too much.
[Our conversation shifted to the uncomfortable Juilliard scene.]
TC: While the Juilliard scene [see clip above] was blunt and unrealistic in its set-up, it poses interesting questions. I like that the student and Tár are both right and they’re both wrong [the student’s “I won’t conduct a white, cis man’s music” argument versus Tár’s “But what about Bach?”]. She’s an a**hole about it, obviously, but she’s got some good points. Tár’s also not a white man either, so the perspective helps. But then they, arguably, both go too far, and the movie doesn’t follow up on that well enough.
KM: I was hoping the same, too. You have two very interesting (and relevant) viewpoints here, not just from different gender perspectives but from different generational perspectives.
TC: Absolutely! They’re both valid points, and the movie sets them up, again, bluntly but well. But then it doesn’t go anywhere.
KM: It’s also not unusual these days for students to decide, “I’m going to conduct new music.” Obviously, when you go to music school, you learn how to conduct Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms, but there are plenty of conductors out there who only do new stuff.
TC: It’s ridiculous. You can make an ideological stance against that decision, but the movie asserts that the student doesn’t know Bach, and then Tár bullies them for that and plays the f*cking C-major Prelude of all things! [Both: Laugh.]
KM: I’ve also never heard the student’s “Bach was a misogynist” take before.
TC: Yeah. It would have been better if Tár had picked someone who was actually problematic in history… like Wagner! [Both: Laugh.] That is extreme in the other direction, obviously, but then she would’ve truly had to work to separate a composer’s life from their art. But Bach just seems so… The movie has nothing to say other than he was a white man who had children. I don’t get it.
KM: I was thinking Mahler would’ve been a better example since Tár is preparing to conduct Mahler 5, and there’s the whole issue of Mahler not allowing Alma to compose. [Tár’s assistant even brings this up at one point.] That would have been way more interesting since it would’ve been a composer more immediately relevant to her.
TC: Hey, what if they did Strauss? [KM: Yes!] There’s the scene where Tár talks with her mentor about the denazification of German conductors [specifically Furwängler and Karajan] after WWII. Guess what Strauss had to go through? That would’ve been a nice narrative bow—Tár tries to defend Strauss only to get “canceled” later. I would buy that. And Strauss was also a friend of Mahler. Or, what if she played Bernstein for the student since she supposedly studied with him? That would make the composer-conductor connection more palpable. [Plus, Bernstein was also a complicated, problematic figure; see On the Road & Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein and Famous Father Girl ].
[On the constant name-dropping throughout the film.]
KM: I think back to the opening scene [see clip above] where Tár is doing the New Yorker interview, and the interviewer rattles off this long list of her accomplishments. Now, I know why they did that—they’re setting up this very prestigious character—but it almost seemed like too much.
TC: It’s attempting verisimilitude, but it just goes so overboard. Sometimes a movie like this can wow people with all of its name-dropping and information, but it’s inevitably going to get things wrong. It’s impossible for it not to. Because unless an actual conductor is making the movie, it’s not going to work.
KM: And people like us, who are on the “inside,” notice when things are off. Like the character who came up to Lydia after the interview and said, “I saw you conduct Rite of Spring at the Met.” It’s like, “Huh?” I wonder what people not versed in classical music think about all that.
TC: It’s the same with Whiplash. It’s a good movie with a pretty good approximation of the process, but it gets too caught up in jargon. That’s why Amadeus is brilliant, and so many other music movies fail. [KM: Yes!] Because Amadeus doesn’t get caught up in name-dropping. It’s about the culture, the personalities, the dynamics, the politicking. People think that if you just throw lingo into a film, there’s instant credibility, and that’s just crap. That is a part of the process, but it’s not fun to watch.
KM: Right! It’s human interest that makes a movie compelling, and the drama naturally stems from that. Amadeus does this so well because it focuses on different relational dynamics, both in Mozart’s own life and in Salieri’s (including the framing device with the priest).
TC: And Amadeus is wrong! [KM: Exactly!] That’s the thing; it works in spite of its factual inaccuracies. It’s so wrong about so many things, but it’s so great because it’s not trying to be realistic. The realism comes from the performances, the costumes; everything else is just drama. [See clip below.] And Tár doesn’t nail that. It’s got drama, but the verisimilitude suffers. It tries too hard to be so lived in.
[On the film’s odd view of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.]
KM: The film’s belief that Mahler 5 is “the big one” of his symphonies is also pretty odd.
TC: Absolutely. The notion of Mahler 5 being this “insurmountable obstacle” is just so bizarre to me. Like you said in the Zoom chat, Mahler 2, 3, 8, or 9 would all make more sense. Nine, especially, because it’s so dark and about death.
KM: And you need to know the preceding symphonies, too, and what led up to it. Nine comes with a lot of baggage.
TC: Five’s the most conventional one. It’s got tunes. I don’t want to be sh*tty to Mahler—I love Five—but was it just because we know it? [Both: Laugh.]
KM: Yeah… Maybe that was the same deal with the Elgar Cello Concerto? It seemed like such a bizarre decision to pair that with Mahler 5.
TC: Right! Tár is apparently this gifted conductor, pianist, and composer. Why didn’t we hear the final result of what she was composing on the piano? I realize it’s hard to create a piece of music that sounds like it would be played by the Berlin Phil…
KM: Because then you get a Mr. Holland’s Opus situation where there’s this whole build-up, and then when you finally hear his piece at the end, you’re like, “Wait, he was working his entire career on this schlock?” [Both: Laugh.] So, it’s obviously very tricky to find that believability.
TC: Also, why is Tár sh*tting on Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music? It’s like, “You’re a composer!” The Juilliard scene makes her come across as this staunch conservative. She’s the crocodile in the river at the end of the movie, the escaped predator who “survives.” But they made her a composer, so why did she do that?
[KM edit: Apparently, director Todd Field chose Mahler 5 largely because of the first movement’s funeral march, which presages Tár’s fall from grace at the end of the film. OK, I’ll give him that… but 9 still makes more sense in my mind.]
[On the similarities between Lydia Tár and Marin Alsop.]
TC: It’s weird how they mentioned Marin Alsop directly in the film. It’s like the classic thing of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip acknowledging that Saturday Night Live exists in-universe. But it’s ridiculous how much the Tár character is just Alsop. Like, why would they have her be a Bernstein protégé? Why would she be a lesbian, have a foundation for women conductors, teach at a university? It’s crazy. And that’s just so rude to Alsop, who is not a terrible person! [Laughs.]
KM: Yeah… Intentional or not, I can see now why she wasn’t happy with the film. It also makes you wonder if she was consulted at all? It kinda reminds me of Thomas Mann basing the main character of Doctor Faustus on Schoenberg, and, after publishing it, Schoenberg was like, “Um, what the heck, dude?” [Both: Laugh.]
TC: I don’t know. I read on Wikipedia that John Mauceri was the main consultant for the film. [Blanchett apparently studied conducting with Australian conductor Natalie Murray Beale.] But there are not that many female conductors of prominence. There are more than there used to be, of course, but it’s still a male-dominated sphere in many ways. So, it’s just rude to glom onto Alsop, who is probably the most famous female conductor right now. I mean, I don’t know if you can think of somebody else…
KM: Well, it’s funny because many of Blanchett’s conducting mannerisms reminded me more of Mirga [Gražinytė-Tyla] than Alsop.
TC: That’s an interesting call. [Compare below.]
KM: Alsop’s very…
KM: Very precise! And there’s not a ton of showmanship there. But I know Mirga has both admirers and haters because her style is way more animated. Blanchett’s conducting seemed to stem more from that school.
TC: And that’s not even the biggest issue. I’m a big conductor! But Blanchett’s is almost too big. It’s like Katharine Hepburn as Clara Schumann [in the 1947 film Song of Love]. It’s hammy. Also, can I request that you make a GIF of Hepburn playing piano with the caption, “Literally Tár conducting an orchestra”?
KM: Absolutely! [Both: Laugh.]
[Our final thoughts.]
KM: In general, I liked the movie more than I thought I would. It’s very well-acted and beautifully filmed. And Cate Blanchett is amazing, obviously. But I think the two biggest problems are where the film landed and how it got there.
TC: It didn’t need to be three hours. [KM: No, not at all!] I liked the stillness and the flatness of a lot of the scenes, but it could have used some editing and reworking of the script. Also, now that I’ve seen it, Blanchett is definitely the frontrunner for the Oscars. It’s a well-written character in that there’s a lot of nuance, and the movie ultimately pities her while not totally letting her off the hook, which is hard to do—and I will give it credit for that—but man, Michelle Yeoh’s performance [in Everything Everywhere All at Once] is just unbelievable. That was a way more compelling and interesting performance.
KM: Agreed. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, too. I’ve only seen Everything Everywhere… one time, but I want to see it again. I’d be fine not seeing Tár again.
[Narrator voice: “He did.” I ended up watching the film a second time with my dad. He also thought it was disappointing. My opinion remained unchanged.]
TC: If Tár ends up sweeping, I will be pretty disappointed. I personally don’t give a sh*t about the Oscars, but they are still used as cultural capital to fund things. But I don’t know. I’ve seen this type of movie before. I haven’t seen Everything Everywhere… before. Even The Menu worked for me more; it had more to say in a way that was stylish and succinct.
[KM edit: Everything Everywhere All at Once ended up sweeping at the Oscars in March, winning seven of its eleven nominated awards including Best Actress for Yeoh and Best Picture. And deservedly so! *Breathes sigh of contentment and relief.*]
TC: Well, I’m glad we did this, even though it was a very weird experience, and I’m very torn on the whole thing.
KM: Before we go, which number Mahler symphony would you rate this movie?
TC: I’d give it a Mahler 5 out of 9. [Both: Laugh.]
KM: Yeah, I agree. It’s appropriate!
- Another actor who deserves a shoutout is Sophie Kauer, who plays the Russian cellist Olga Metkina. Kauer is actually a cellist, giving her character an added element of realism. (And she’s not a bad actor either!)
- Even though the name-dropping got tiresome after a while, whenever someone—including Lydia Tár—seizes an opportunity to spread the good word about how Jean-Baptiste Lully died, it’s more than acceptable in my book. Kudos to you, Lydia.
- Biggest faux pas: when listening to candidates for the orchestra’s vacant cello seat, the auditions are held blind (i.e., behind a screen), but there is no carpeting on the floor. This allows Tár to hear the clicking of Olga’s heels, influencing her final decision. While obviously done for plot reasons, this is a HUGE no-no in the real world and a mistake many orchestras have rectified to prevent implicit gender bias.
- Apparently, some people have searched the web thinking Lydia Tár is a real person. I don’t know if that’s hilarious or scary. (Vulture also compiled “49 True Facts About Lydia Tár,” which is obviously tongue-in-cheek but probably hasn’t helped things.)
- Funniest moment: Tár’s sarcastic jab as her clock radio starts playing a recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. (“Knock, knock… who’s there? Walter? Lenny? No, it’s you, MTT! Why do you insist on holding things up like that? Your business here is rejoicing, not screaming like a f*cking porn star!)
- Speaking of MTT on a more positive note, I once heard him lead a concert with the San Francisco Symphony that featured Mahler 5 alongside Berg’s Violin Concerto. This pairing is infinitely better and makes way more sense than the Elgar/Mahler combo in the film. (Again, Elgar was probably chosen for plot/familiarity reasons…)
- The film has an odd bone to pick with Deutsche Grammophon, evidenced by several slights Lydia throws toward the record company. A bit strange considering DG released the film’s soundtrack (or “concept album,” as they call it). Hmmm.
- Alternate title ideas for this blog: “A TÁR is Born,” “It’s a TÁR World After All,” “TotaliTÁRianism,” “Not-So-Sweet TÁRrts.” Hey, I tried.
- Dan Kois, “Tár Is the Most-Talked-About Movie of the Year. So Why Is Everyone Talking About It All Wrong?” (Slate, December 2022)
- Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, “Tár: busting the myths the film perpetuates of the all-powerful maestro” (The Conversation, January 2023)
- Fraser Gilliat, “TÁR: Identity Politics in the Rehearsal Room” (The Oxford Blue, January 2023)
- Xenia Hanusiak, “Enter the conductrice: Will women overturn the world of classical conducting?” (Aeon, January 2023)
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