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.Continue reading “The Flawed Artistry of TÁR”