Why are music documentaries so deferential?

Why are music documentaries so deferential?


norman lebrecht

September 27, 2020

BBC-2 showed two bio-docs last night.

The first covered the life and works of the conductor Bernard Haitink, the second illuminated the life and death of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

I have no interest whatsoever in fashion yet I was gripped by McQueen’s dramatic genius, his lurid tastes and lifelong torments, his loves and hates, none of which were concealed in this masterful act of storytelling.

I have a primary interest in conducting yet I was bored for much of Haitink’s story in which he was extolled by musicians without a single questioning voice. Hatink’s life, we know, never ran smooth, but the documentary depicted it as an inexorable progress in which talent would aways triumph. If you ever wonder why people switch off on classical music it is because it has forgotten how to tell a human story.

McQueen, on being hired by Givenchy, insisted on meeting the expert sewing staff and, to snob horror, lunching in their canteen. Direcots told him that the artistic director is a king. He does not mingle with his subjects. McQueen, a cab-driver’s son, stuffed that.

Classical music still treats its maestros as monarchs. Haitink is a decent man who has achieved great things but almost every interesting aspect of his life in music was glossed over in this act of hagiolatry.



  • Lunchtime O'Boulez says:

    Yes, it’s the same for that old fraud Carry on. The sycophants always come out of the woodwork. They are picture frames nothing more. Their job is to simply to present without making themselves more important than the music and without imposing any of their odd mannerisms on the music, for example Mantovani legato.

    I think Sir Isaiah Berlin said it best reviewing two concerts at Salzburg in 1948.

    Karajan seems to conceive music as a series of self-contained episodes, and these he articulates one by one with a clarity of detail and a strictly calculated imperious organization of tempi and dynamics which moves with the remorseless accuracy of a dive-bomber intent upon its prey.

    (Lunchtime O’Boulez has a column in Private Eye).

    • Tim B says:

      People can conceive music however they want. That’s the whole point of the arts.

    • M McAlpine says:

      well as expected you take the opportunity for a totally unrelated swipe at Karajan. Actually if you had seen the documentary on Karajan the BBC made some time ago it was tons better and more amusing than the Haitink for the simple reason that the people on it were tons less deferential. You have a column in Private Eye? How could we not have guess? Thanks for the warning!

    • Annnnnnon says:

      Have worked as a musician with Haitink for years. He is simply the best, as good as it gets, self effacing, humble, inspiring. Shame today’s conductors cannot grasp his respect of the musicians and lack of blah blah blah. If you’re not a musician, but an observer, you really don’t “get it”!

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Not all documentaries are hagiographies. About a decade ago two documentaries on Carlos Kleiber came out. Maybe they were uncritical on his interpretations, but not on his personality.



    I enjoyed watching them. And yet I always ask myself if time spent watching documentaries on performers is worthwhile. I see parallels to the countless instances when the name of the performer on a CD or LP cover is in bigger fonts than the name of the composer.

  • Bloom says:

    This is happening because in the classical field , in what certain conductors ( maestros) or certain divas ( sopranos) / divos ( tenors) are concerned at least, the adulatory discourse is still very fashionable. And the status quo is also more resistant to change than in the pop culture.

  • microview says:

    I, for one, was moved by his stories about the German occupation (from 1hr 05m); maybe forget much of the remainder.

  • Peter Harris says:

    I’m afraid you are so right. The Great Man story. He was more interesting when allowed to speak, as in his story of the war and the Jewish friends who never returned, his father not a hero, and saw himself in same mould.

  • sam says:

    Deferential? Sycophantic!

    I think the reason is that most documentaries of classical musicians are made by either the record companies or the (local) TV companies that broadcast those musicians, so they are more promotional materials than in-depth reporting.

    The second reason is that the audience base is so small for these documentaries, who’s going to devote the resources to an exposé to have no one watch it anyway?

    Fashion is a multi-trillion dollar global industry. The masses will tune in and want to see Yves Saint Laurent fighting with Karl Lagerfeld over the same man, doing coke and having an orgy in the same disco. I don’t think Karajan and Bernstein ever fought over the same lover although I can see them doing coke at a disco.

  • JohnG says:

    The Haitink film was indeed gentle, possibly taking a cue from its subject… although there were hints of inner conflict, and quite a lot was made of his response to growing up in the occupied wartime Netherlands – at times, I wondered whether slightly too much? People are I suppose a mystery, sometimes even to themselves (which would seen to be pertinent to Haitink, who came across as honest as well as modest). While delving more into the nay-sayers and the evidence of mistakes and flaws might have made for a less unruffled surface, I’m not sure that that would have got much closer to the truth of how such a self-effacing man came to be so prominent and widely regarded. It would have been just another directorial angle, surely?

  • Hugh Molloy says:

    I’m sorry you felt so negatively about the Haitink documentary. He has flaws, like the rest of us, but there is much in his life to admire, and much in his approach to music (and to conducting in particular) to emulate. Let us not be afraid to celebrate, rather than to criticise…

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    Okay, Mr. Lebrecht, rede mer Tachles: how would you structure such a bio-doc of Bernard Haitink?

    Please give us an outline.

    Which points in particular would you address, and how?

    You surely cannot expect the author of The Maestro Myth to get away with mere teasing 🙂

    The essence of pretty much any biographical documentary these days seems to be hagiography and pseudo-drama. A quick succession of admiring statements by acolytes and thuriferaries, interspersed with boilerplate archive material.
    Besides the one on Bernard Haitink, I’ve recently seen this very pattern in a feature about photographer Lee Miller (Arte TV), painter Leonora Carrington (BBC 4), and Herbert Blomstedt. Always the same structure.

    As if the audience could not handle anything more complex than an accolade, while afflicted with an attention span not exceeding the life expectancy of a whelk in a supernova.

  • Blazing Star says:

    Interesting points. There’s nothing more tedious than watching an agent’s press release, but I’d imagine this type of exercise always needs to be written off by a group of people close to the subject. Maybe there’ll be an exposé in about twenty years’ time once the legal resistance is no more.

  • Duncan says:

    I can’t agree with you on the Haitink programme: I thought Bridcut did an excellent job and perhaps we should be giving BBC2 credit for showing a ‘highbrow’ music programme in peak Saturday viewing time. Turning people onto classical music should not be just about sensationalism. If the programme avoided asking or probing any difficult questions, well the guy is celebrating 90 years and is highly regarded. Why not not just enjoy his achievements?

  • IP says:

    I prefer documentaries about critics but they are so scarce.

  • David Ward says:

    Without exception, every one of my many musician colleagues who has watched this documentary is full of praise for it. I agree with them, and certainly prefer this approach to the tabloid scandal sheet style of documentary.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Either / or?

      A documentary can be truthful and probing without sinking to vulgar levels.

      Documentaries that are mere commercials for a brand are falsifications of the subject.

  • M McAlpine says:

    Agree about the Haitink. Real bore. What’s the point of person after person just saying how good he is? Give us the real man!

  • Craig says:

    I know people who clashed with Haitink in his younger, more fiery years, but I think this is genuinely a case that he is revered by the musicians in a singular way, and with ample justification. Perhaps there could have been more interesting things said about his life, but I doubt they would have found anyone willing to say a bad word about him.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Great musicians can give the impression of being burdened with a ‘boring’ personality because they don’t have much to ‘say’, but it is their musical persona and their understanding of the music they perform where their real personality is to be found. Musicians are almost never brilliant intellectuals or conversationalists and why should they be? It’s not their terrain.

      • Marfisa says:

        Musicians are almost always at least respectable intellectually and brilliant conversationally *when they talk about music*, in all its aspects – as reading this blog and its comments well demonstrates. It is when they talk about other things, such as [fill in the blank], that they become boring!

  • Haitink is more than a “decent man” he’s a genius and an exemple of integrity and longevity. Last year before to see him with a lot of emotions a last time in concert with the LSO I read his biography by Simon Mundy. Very interisting.

  • Concertgebouwmusician says:

    A very problematic and vindictive man in his personal life. He held grudges like no other and would immediately cut close friends from his life when they disappointed him.

    • I can’t confirm what you wrote. It’s true that Haitink didn’t leave the RCO in a good mood in 1988. Some musicians said that Haitink didn’t take care enough of modern music. And after more 25 years in the same place… Anyway it was a very good choice to take Chailly at the time and it’s very good that Haintik came back several times to direct the RCO. I think that it would have been clever for Haitink to leave the RCO in the mid-80’s at the end of his glorious Christmas Mahler cycle we can watch today on Youtube. And at the time Haitink had a lot of things to do at Covent Garden

  • MezzoLover says:

    “If you ever wonder why people switch off on classical music it is because it has forgotten how to tell a human story.”

    No, Norman, people switch off on classical music when some human (who thinks he/she knows better) gets in the way of the music and deprives it of its power to tell a good story. In Haitink’s case – especially during his time at the Royal Opera House – that human was invariably an idiotic director with his laughable production. It has absolutely nothing to do with Haitink himself, or indeed how he is portrayed in this well-received documentary.

    As a life-long Haitink admirer who thinks his greatness remains under-appreciated even today, I would suggest that “with reverence” is the most fitting way to approach the music-making of this self-effacing, “enigmatic” maestro who had this to say in a 2009 Guardian interview about the occupied Netherlands during WWII and how it ultimately impacted his own conducting career:

    “I think the whole scene would have been different if Hitler and this whole fanatic policy had not existed. It becomes very odd and frightening when you think about it – these are very dangerous and unpleasant thoughts, but I would never have been a conductor if all of these catastrophes had not happened. There would have been more talented conductors than me.”

  • Cannot live without music says:

    Just so. I found the contrast between the Haitink documentary’s hagiographical stance to its subject a jarring contrast with the striking impression of diffidence and even vulnerability that the film gave of Haitink himself. I think the latter qualities may be genuine, but the objective of a good biographical documentary is to get a bit more under the surface of these initial reactions of the subject!

  • A Pianist says:

    And none was worse than the recent Pavarotti documentary. “Pure selfless Pavarotti, who thought of nothing but the music”…I just could not believe that thing made it onto the screen.

    • Yes Addison says:

      That really was a bore. A couple of the interview subjects did their best to get an insight past Ron Howard (Anne Midgette and Domingo were bright spots), but I was mystified by the generally favorable reaction to it. I guess a lot of people just enjoyed seeing and hearing the subject again and hearing monotonous gush about him.

      Immediately after Pavarotti died, one of the London papers ran a series of reminiscences from singers, conductors, critics, and others who had known him well, worked with him, or followed his career. Some of them were adoring and others more measured or critical, and that added up to a far better picture of him.

  • Bostin'Symph says:

    Poor Bernard Haitink. He had the misfortune of not having to combat his working class background, drug-addiction and sexuality-that-frightened-the-horses to fulfill his dreams. He didn’t have colourful and eccentric friends, nor did he battle being HIV positive, or be so devoted to his mother that he could not bear to live after her death.

    Instead, like most successful people, his career trajectory was relatively unimpeded, and he enjoyed several decades establishing a respected reputation. The documentary of his life may not have been a 5-act Hollywood movie, full of jeopardy and with a juicy peripeteia. But, to me, it was interesting and welcome nonetheless.

    It was also heartening to see that the BBC were willing to devote 90 minutes to classical music in a BBC2 Saturday evening schedule. I’m sorry the result was something you felt you had to grumble at, Norman.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    There was a wonderful warts-n-all documentary on Solti a few years after he died when some London players were very critical of him. That was breath of fresh air. Ridiculing those ridiculous elbow twitches he did (even in the quietest of passages) and wanting to make the brass sound more American.

    Now that was worth watching

    • J Morris Jones says:

      Yes, I remember some of the musicians such as the LPO timpanist offering frankly their differing opinions on Solti’s concept of sound.

      The legendary (notorious?) Bernstein ‘Enigma Variations’ was acc. by a short documentary, dir. Humphrey Burton, featuring Bernstein rehearsing the BBCSO. It’s well known as they didn’t cut the edgy moments where LB has some moderately sharp disagreements and debates with the orchestra

  • caranome says:

    Because it’s a mutual exploitation scheme: the subject uses/manipulates/charms the journalist/writer/film maker into good PR, and they in turn produce pap to get continued access to that subject and his/her friends. If they start naming names against the subject’s wishes, they’d be cut off.

  • Tim B says:

    We must have watched different documentaries, Norman.

    Both Thomas Allen and David Syrus gave balanced views of his Covent Garden tenure, discussing his unflattering nickname etc.

    Haitink himself spoke of the animosity he faced as a young conductor from vicious older musicians, and he certainly didn’t gloss over his wartime memories, or his bluntly honest recollections of Dutch behaviour after Liberation.

    I thought it was a brilliant documentary, and absolutely wonderful of the BBC to put it on in a prime time slot.

  • Duncan says:

    My last sentence should only have one ‘not’

  • Henk Guittart says:

    Haven’s see the McQueen documentary yet, but I couldnt’ agree more in re the Haitink film.Too many vain singers, too many irrelevant opinions, and in my view there was no concept of a documentary and of doing justice to the wonderful life in music of Mr. Haitink, who deserved so much better.

  • John Borstlap says:

    It is, alas, part of the ‘maestro cult’ which is entirely parasitical and dehumanizing. It is supposed to elevate the human being to olympian greatness but in fact it lowers it to a lifeless bust, next to the lifeless busts of ‘classcial composers’ in the window of derelict 2nd hand shops in backwaters.

    Also it implicitly reduces the music of the really great creators to mere vehicles for ‘the maestro’s feelings’ at this or that moment, to commodities with a high price label of which the digits are so much bigger than the name of the composer, which is reduced to a brand.

    Also, trajectories of great performers are never the result of ‘talent always triumphs’. If this were so, there would not be empty poseurs circulating uselessly in music life and we would not bump with great surprise into great talent which did not draw the attention of managers, promotors, festival directors, etc. etc.

    • Tim B says:

      No, it’s not. It’s sad to be so cynical you completely lose belief in the idea that someone can be decent and good.

    • Novagerio says:

      Mr.Borstlap: and yet, without a “parasitical and dehumanizing” egocentric Maestro championing your music, you would be lecturing rather than being performed. The same goes by the way to all your composing peers.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The point is, what the motivation of performers is. In my experience, that motivation counts for the nature of the performance. The really best performers ‘use’ their big ego as a vehicle for something even bigger and that is the score.

  • Jimbo says:

    Norman, I haven’t seen the Haitink documentary, so cannot comment on it, but if I may I’d like to comment on your comments. Sometimes, there is no smoke or fire. Sometimes there is no dirt or salaciousness, or “kiss and tell” material. Some, if not most artists, lead very ordinary lives offstage, and could be described as uninteresting or even boring. Some conductors offstage are the same. Some conductors onstage are neither dictatorial or argumentative, aggressive or harsh. Therefore it could be challenging to find an orchestra player (although there’ll always be a malcontent if you look hard enough), to fit an agenda. Haitink got on with this his life and craft and some people, orchestras and audiences liked what they saw and heard, others did not but at the same time they didn’t feel the need to carp or shame him.

  • John Bridcut says:

    Lebrecht is of course entitled to his customary contrary minority view. But he needs to get out more. Maybe he could then discover how to perceive the rough edges in characters without always having to have them painted in garish primary colours. It’s perhaps that garishness that puts many people off television rather than off classical music. And he clearly has no appreciation or understanding of the unprompted affection and respect that countless orchestral musicians have for Bernard Haitink.

    • pjl says:

      Thank you, sir, for this fine film and others that went to DVD but SHOULD have been on the BBC. The way you coaxed BH into an understated disgust at the collaborators and liars in Amsterdam (when he was only 16) was remarkable, as was the delightful revelation by Ax that he (Mannie) was a ‘silly’ person! His analysis of that subtle rubato in Beethoven 6 was one of the greatest insights into the art of a subtle conductor I have ever heard.

  • Sam says:

    like this documentary about R. Goodall, which somehow manages to avoid the fact that he was a Nazi….

  • Rob says:

    I thought the Haitink documentary was pretty good. You can always make your own Haitink documentary, Norman Lebrecht.

  • Peter Phillips says:

    Well yes, the programme was on the adulatory side So we never heard about his falling out with the TCO. But Haitink himself was quiet and unsensational. This meant that his reflections on Amsterdam during and after WW2 were utterly compelling.

  • Nik says:

    Thanks. I saw it pop up on the iPlayer and considered watching it. I won’t bother now.
    Yes, the McQueen documentary is utterly engrossing, even though, like yours, my interest in the fashion world is very limited. In a similar vein, I hugely enjoyed the Senna and Maradona films by Asif Kapadia, even though I have no interest whatsoever in F1 or football. These are quite simply great stories, expertly told.
    I fully agree – someone of that calibre should tackle a classical music subject. I would love to see the result.

  • Mark (London says:

    Oh dear. So Lebrecht wanted warts on Haitink ! Perhaps there weren’t any !

  • Noel Witts says:

    Agree. What about his walking out from Richard Jones ‘ Ring’ at Covent Garden and his generally boring musical profile – hagiography at its worst, Noel Witts

  • B. Guerrero says:

    Perhaps Haitink’s detractors would argue that his story was boring because he was a boring conductor. I only ‘sometimes’ had that opinion. Sometimes he seemed so poker-faced and self effacing that he was, indeed, boring. Perhaps that’s what you were hoping people would bring up, Norman. However, I think those times were more than counterbalanced by the times he conducted with genuine interest and passion. He certainly did plenty in promoting the music of Gustav Mahler, as well as bringing fine performances of French music to Amsterdam. It also strikes me, Norman, that you’ve done plenty to edify conductors and raise those you like to the level of monarchs.

    • MezzoLover says:

      Well said, B. Guerrero. Haitink’s performances of French music, although not extensively documented, are amongst his finest achievements IMHO. I still consider his Bizet Symphony in C the most exhilarating – and certainly the best played – in the entire catalogue. (Those Concertgebouw winds!)

  • Herbie G says:

    Just watched this documentary – a warm tribute to an outstanding conductor whose last performance in London I was privileged to attend. The reason why it was so deferential was that he deserved it. Pity NL found it boring – would it have been more exciting if he’d had a life-long drug habit, eight failed marriages and been convicted for gross indecency after urinating on the steps of the Concertgebouw? Pity he’s too young to be accused of being a vociferous Nazi.
    Clearly he’s of no interest to journalists who trade only on digging up dirt – real or imagined.

  • Brian says:

    Go to YouTube and watch some of the 60 Minutes interviews from the 1970s and ’80s, where Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley would grill the likes of Pavarotti, Horowitz and others. They were riveting by virtue of the fact that they treated them just like would any CEO, politician or corporate shark. No deference simply because they were famous.

    • J Morris Jones says:

      Indeed. It would as a concept be most interesting to watch a ‘When Louis Met…’ with Louis Theroux profiling any major-league cond. or artist. I’d imagine no classical eminence would want to take part in one of those.

  • Why?

    I’m reminded of what Chaplin said when he was asked why he didn’t employ dramatic camera angles in his films.

    “I am already dramatic,” he answered.

    Music is already dramatic, there is less need to create the appearance of drama by inserting the hand-wringing over where lunch was eaten.

    Fashions themselves are not dramatic, not for more than a glance’s duration. And then what do you do to fill the rest of the hour of the documentary?

    The drama of the fashion world IS the backstabbers and office politickers of the various entourages and hangers-on. There will be many of those since the fashion designer never had to command the respect and cooperation of nearly as many people as the music director did, and thus will have many left on the outside looking in.

    The fashions themselves are just more cloth hanging on super thin models traipsing up and down the artificial environment of a runway.

  • Miko says:

    At a moment when thousands of freelance musicians are going to the wall, where are those “monarchs” whose voices should speak up in defence of the arts?
    I’ve followed their beat for better or worse all my life, but still couldn’t tell you how much they earn, except to say that many cash in more for a week’s work than the average jobbing freelancer takes in a year.

  • John humphreys says:

    Haitink came across as a decent man and a fine musician. Anything else to know about him to enliven our jaded spirits in these tedious times is really of no importance. Don’t worry Norman, I’m sure his epitaph (as on so many church memorials) will not be one which places him on the right hand of God..

  • J Morris Jones says:

    I think that the documentary was perhaps made to mark the occasion of BH’s retirement at 90 and as such can be seen as a double retirement/birthday tribute. The documentary didn’t go so far as to say ‘Happy Birthday, Bernie old chap, and here’s a clock with an engraved plaque to mark your retirement too’, but it would be unlikely to encounter any heavy-duty criticism in such a programme.

    Incidentally, I read at the hands of Harold C. Schonberg that ‘Happy Birthday’ as we know it was written/arranged for the fiftieth of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I don’t know whether that’s in fact true.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    While I suspect that there is a greater potential demand for dirt and trash and gossip about people in the fashion business than there is about symphony conductors, it should also be pointed out that it is considerably easier and from a liability perspective much safer to be truthful (or for that matter, entertainingly and deliberately untruthful) and even lurid about a dead person (not newly dead: safely dead) than a living person, whether in a book or in a documentary. For one thing more sources feel free to talk when nothing — benefit or harm — any longer turns on what they say.

  • Nick2 says:

    I have seen neither documentary but can well imagine from the comments above how the Haitink one must have seemed.

    The real problem is surely that the BBC and its arts researchers simply did a lousy job. If the director has only been given a one-sided view, that’s how the film will appear In finished form.

    This is unlike Ron Howard‘s Pavarotti film last year. The company which developed the concept and script had done a great deal of research and had a lot of material, negative as well as positive. But the negative was mostly left out, presumably because the movie was backed by his recording company and the 2 families. It was always going to be merely a flattering puff piece.

    Compare that with his former manager Herbert Breslin’s book “The King and I”. It’s obvious, no matter that Breslin had been fired in 2003 along with his concert promoter Tibor Rudas, that especially in his last two decades there were a great deal of extremely controversial issues which could and should have been included to give viewers a balanced view of his life and career.

  • Reithian says:

    I produced a 90th birthday tribute of another artistic subject for BBC TV. As it was indeed intended as a tribute – and as the subject was indeed 90 years old – we collectively believed that the real value would lie, not in whatever current interview material we would gather, but in assembling rare archive footage, showing the artist’s work over a long life. The film turned out pretty well, if I may say, and was not boring. The best bits were undoubtedly the treasures from the BBC archive.

    That said I suspect this Haitink film was not all that gripping, given the subject and the nature of a conductor’s working life. Warts-and-all biography can be good arts film-making (even the bumpy Tony Palmer turned in a fine piece of work about the complicated life of Margot Fonteyn) but a birthday tribute is what it is.

    So I’m glad the BBC did something for Clogs’s 90th and hope the general public watched it, enjoyed it and learned something along the way.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      The LPO had another name for him, more direct and revealing.

      • Bart says:

        Given the tone of your blog piece, it’s strange that you won’t say what the name was.

      • Mark (London says:

        So the fact that Rodney Friend who was leader of LPO said he never heard a bad word about Haitink in all the years he was there was it anecdotal? All rather tedious and boring thread sir!

  • Sharon says:

    I think the keys to determining whether a bio pic will be hagiography is
    1. Determining who is paying for the bulk of the funding of the film
    2. What the director and producer believe should be the purpose of the film
    3. Which people will grant them or are allowed to grant the film makers interviews.

    Let’s take for ex. a hypothetical biopic about James Levine. Depending on the answers to those three questions one could have a film that could be largely hagiography OR largely total and absolute criticism OR anywhere in between and ALL would be completely truthful AND comprehensive. People are very complicated