There are many films about classical musicians that miss the mark. Josh Aronson's film Talent Has Hunger is not one of those. If you want some real insight into what the life of a classical musician is about, go see it. Talent has Hunger is absolutely the real thing. Music critic Rick Schultz turned me on to this film with his excellent review in the Jewish Journal—'Talent' intrigues in portrait of cellist Paul Katz, students.
Paul Katz, famed cellist of the Cleveland Quartet, now teaches at the New England Conservatory. The film follows him and four of his top students through an academic year, and then follows up a year later. Interesting. But then the film concludes following the same students five years later revealing their adult life trajectory! I actually got knots in my stomach during their juries as I had flashbacks to my own time at the New England Conservatory.
The film pursued two ideas that really grabbed me. One was how well Paul Katz communicated the idea that artists come to feel deep roots both with the history of music and the great teachers of the past. In two great scenes with his own master teachers, János Starker and Bernard Greenhouse, Katz articulates to them what he feels they taught him years ago, and they in turn reveal their own thought processes at the time! Then one of Katz's former students, Pieter Wispelwey, reflects on what he learned from Katz and then gives a masterclass to Katz's current students. These current students talk about how this hunger to connect and join the fabric of all the great cellists of the past is a big part of what drives them to study with Katz. They feel those past lives live within them too.
A second idea in the film was how a life in classical music is a complex emotional and physical relationship with the art that continues to present substantial challenges and, if you're lucky, unexpected breakthroughs, throughout your life. What drives the four talented students has little resonance with celebrity or accolades. At the end of the film, the young child cello prodigy is now 18 going to Harvard and considering another career. The lazy talent is now disciplined, but disgusted with the "machine" of classical touring, seeking his own path in house concerts and personal expression. The solid focused student wins all the right prizes and succeeds in the competitive New York scene. The enthusiastic undergrad who talked enthusiastically about teaching and giving back is now on the path to becoming a master teacher at the New England Conservatory herself.
Experienced classical musicians will perceive richer dimensions behind the film's short scenes of master classes and juries. The conservatory process, heck, the "master teacher" process, is a process of wounding and eventually healing that wound. It forces an intense internal examination of one's identity and a confrontation of one's weaknesses. It is a trial. You can't hide. Bullshit no longer works. You come out of it deeper and forever changed. This film, Talent Has Hunger, treats this ordeal with great respect, almost reverence, and in doing so, explains why music matters so much.
Postscript: As great as this film is, if you want to see the BEST film in my opinion about a classical musician, go watch Salome Arkatov's masterpiece The Legacy of Rosina Lhevinne. It's the story of arguably the 20th century's greatest piano teacher who had her debut with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in her eighties!