Scorsese & Chopin, A Match Made in My Movie Heaven

A clarification at the outset: In the tradition of not cowering totally out of hasty-blogging errors, I will note up front that the previously-published version of this piece had characterized Martin Scorsese as the (obvious) director of this project; in truth, he’s set only to produce this film, which came about from a pitch by Peter Glanz, who’s writing the script. My excitement over it, especially related to the prospect of its relationship to the music of Chopin, remains undiminished…and happily for me, a substantial portion of my discussion of the story here could remain completely intact! 

Read on:

One of the world’s most amazing movie directors could soon be making a film that includes some of the world’s most amazing music. Variety reported on January 7 that Martin Scorsese is developing a biopic of American classical pianist Byron Janis, based on the Julliard-trained musician’s 2010 autobiography Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal.

Credited with helping start a Cold War thaw between America and the Soviet Union thanks to his historic visit to Russia in 1960, the Pennsylvania-born Janis struggled throughout his illustrious career with punishing arthritis, a condition that did not prevent him from becoming world-renowned as a brilliant interpreter of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, and in particular, Chopin—with his special devotion to Chopin’s music also noteworthy for his discovery of two previously unknown waltzes composed by the Polish master.

The film is set up at Paramount, the studio responsible for the Scorsese pictures Shutter Island, Hugo, The Rolling Stones: Shine a Light, The Wolf of Wall Street, and this year’s adaptation of the Shūsaku Endō novel Silence.

While my earlier version of this post was mistaken in the belief that Scorsese was going to direct this movie rather than just produce, my own excitement for the Janis project can’t be overstated. In addition to counting Scorsese as one of my greatest cinematic heroes, I’ve also long considered one piece by Chopin to be the most representative of my innermost-self (at least, in as much as I understand it). That piece is the Barcarole. If you don’t know it already, here it is:


(Lengthy, music nerdery side note: This performance by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, while fine for my purposes here and perhaps appropriately movie-related since he has been heard on the soundtracks of films including The Portrait of a Lady and Pride & Prejudice, would not ideally be the performance of the Barcarole that I would share with you, as it’s a little frenetic for my taste. We are frequently given to attach ourselves to the first strong performance of a piece that we hear; so it was with me and the Barcarole, having first heard it on a cassette tape I purchased during my freshman year of college. Whether through overplay or carelessness, I cannot remember which now, I lost that tape some time ago and have searched my memory—and the internet!—for years, trying in vain to locate that performance which I will absolutely know the second I hear it. Others’ playing of the tune I have enjoyed to various degrees, but a true replacement for the affection that I have for that very specific interpretation, which has lodged itself in my heart note by note, has yet to appear.)

It’s possible that the Barcarole has already made an important contribution to a movie; if so, I do not know about it. If the piece happens to make an appearance in this film, I might be envious at not having made use of it onscreen myself, but I’ll also be nothing but ecstatic that it’s the filmmaker behind many movies I revere— including Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence, and Gangs of New York—who might be one of the key players in making this piece more popularly known.

Byron Janis photo from Wikipedia Commons, Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby”

As for who’s to inhabit the principal role, one look at a photo of Janis (still living at age 87 at the time of this writing) makes it easy to imagine frequent Scorsese collaborator Leonardo DiCaprio sliding right into the part. With DiCaprio expected to take the Academy Award this year for his performance in The Revenant, casting him as Janis would no doubt speed the sometimes-rocky development process along.

(Though, to update here again, the fact that Scorsese is set only to produce the film makes this piece of casting considerably less likely. I’m guessing if anything, Scorsese might have his eyes on DiCaprio for his upcoming Frank Sinatra biopic.)

I was already charged-up enough to see this year’s Scorsese picture; some patience may be in order when it comes to anticipating the Janis film, however, since Scorsese’s Sinatra biopic has already been in development for a long time, and he also has an HBO project about Pope Celestine V in his busy pipeline.

So much Scorsese, not enough time! Play on, maestro.