Leonard Slatkin: Where the movie Tár gets the  music all wrong

Leonard Slatkin: Where the movie Tár gets the music all wrong

Why Mahler

norman lebrecht

January 20, 2023

The eminent American conductor has posted reservations about the film on his website. He writes:

... As a conductor, Blanchett does a more-than-credible job of emulating a podium presence. But make no mistake, she is not actually the one conducting. Like all films of this genre, the soundtrack is pre-recorded, usually with someone else leading the orchestra. Basically, the actor is body syncing, and although her gestures are wildly over the top, for the most part, she is together with the music. That is until we come to the Elgar, where things go awry in several departments.

Lydia is not coordinated with the orchestra. The concertmaster, who is also Lydia’s wife, clearly cannot play the violin. She has little to no vibrato and seems distracted from the music most of the time. However, the young woman who performs the solos in the Elgar, Sophie Kauer, is terrific and very convincing playing Olga, the Russian cellist who attracts Lydia’s attention. It turns out that Kauer was a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London and is working toward her degree in cello performance at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

The orchestral sound is, at best, murky in the Mahler, as if it had been recorded in a very large bathroom. It is clear that a real orchestra was used for the cameras, and they too are syncing to a pre-recorded track. A most uncomfortable-looking principal trumpet performs the opening of the Mahler, which Lydia wants offstage, quite nicely. Lydia rehearses using a combination of German and English, and surprisingly, we do not get translations of what she is saying. This could have been helpful to gain insight into the world Lydia inhabits. We learn at the beginning of the film that her chief mentor and inspiration was Leonard Bernstein. Certainly whoever conducted the actual soundtrack of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony tried to emulate this with a more-than-excruciatingly-slow rendition.

There are moments when Blanchett is at the piano, and either she studied at some point or actually plays these brief bits herself. Everyone else acquits themselves admirably, and the actors are convincing when speaking about lofty matters of musical theory and performance.

The film is riveting, certainly, but also frustrating. To start with, in what has to be one of the most annoying experiences I have ever had at a movie theater, the end credits actually appear at the start of the film. They are shown in an almost unreadable font and seem to take up at least five minutes of the run time. If you want to know who did what, stick around until the story is over.

Certain scenes depict situations that may seem plausible to the non-orchestral player but are simply not in practice in real life. Although we get a glimpse into the world of the “blind audition,” this process should have been made clearer for the viewer. Especially unrealistic is the announcement by Lydia that the Elgar Concerto will be the companion work on the album with the Mahler. She tells them that it is only right for a member of the orchestra to be the soloist and that the player would be decided by an audition to be held in just three days, as if all the cellists had this ready to go….

Read on here.


  • Gustavo says:

    Tár and feather the writer-director!

  • Carl says:

    A lot of excellent points here. I too found the lack of German subtitles annoying (and pretentious). I’ve read elsewhere, however, that the Dresden Philharmonic did perform live on-set, which is what you’re hearing. Obviously, the concertmaster was an actor miming and they weren’t really following Blanchett. But that was them playing.

  • Gustav says:

    “Lydia” is revealed to have been Linda growing up, if I caught that detail correctly, i.e. pretentious, like most sticks.

    I’m surprised that Slatkin bashes Bernstein’s slow tempi. LB was always able to make a tempo work because the pulse never faltered.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      It also helped to have the strings of the Vienna Philharmonic at their most cooperative.

    • Mister Bee says:

      But in rehearsal ‘Lydia’ reminds the orchestra that the Adagietto is a love song – but what we hear on screen is a dirge. Whoops!

  • Hayne says:

    “…basically the actor is body syncing…”
    This describes many young conductors today.

    • trumpetherald says:

      The usual old fart comments….This is my 44th year as an orchestra musician, in high quality orchestras,. Most conductors in the upper league are fantastic….The overall level(same as for orchestras) is much higher today than 40,50 years ago…..I have played under some “legends” in the 80s who were a real disappointment….I remember a very famous hungarian conductor whose quivery, indecipherable beat we tried very hard to avoid looking at….

  • Thornhill says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Slatkin, this is simply pedantic, treating Tar as if it’s some kind of docudrama. It’s like complaining that Citizen Kane doesn’t accurately depict a newsroom, or what the Godfather gets wrong about the mafia.

    • Sue sonata form says:

      I think he’s suggesting that even verisimilitude requires at least a semblance of credibility.

    • niloiv says:

      Yeah the movie is quite decent for what it’s supposed to be. It’s made for millions of people who want their weekend share of Hollywood, with a flavor about a somewhat mysterious industry to most, and, at the end of day, about what sells nowadays, MeToo/LGBT/Cancel Culture. It’s just not made for Slippedisc dwellers, or someone that the movie actually makes fun of with a side character, who still collects pencils Karajan used

  • Alan says:

    While I have enormous time for Mr. Slatkin as a conductor again I think he is taking this all a little too seriously. This is not a film about conducting. It is as film about the dynamics of and abuse of power which chooses a conductor as its storytelling focus. There’s no way they’re going to focus on the music to the extent that the reviewer requires

    • Rustier spoon says:

      Well they should!

    • Thornhill says:


      And I find it perplexing that posters are sticking their heads in the sand about those issues discussed in the film, especially given that this website constantly covers them, such as sex abuse at music schools, “wokeness” with programming and hiring, mismanagement by executives, CEOs being abruptly fired/resigning, controversial appointments to orchestras, controversial jury awards at competitions, conductors and soloists with massive egos, conductors and soloists who sell out for the money and are obsessed with their celebrity, blood money funding ensembles and festivals, etc.

      Whether intended or not, the reporting on this website makes the case that the classical music world is dysfunctional, validating much of what Tar depicts.

  • Bone says:

    I enjoy Mr. Slatkin generally, but this is tedious.

  • Leonard Slatkin says:

    I would suggest that everyone read the whole article so that you understand the context of my comments. Especially since I think this actually may be the best researched film about the world of classical music. That is why I was irked by the things that were either wrong or inaccurate.

    • Ludwig's Van says:

      But the film isn’t about the world of classical music – it’s just used as a backdrop for a story about Lydia.

    • Thornhill says:

      Mr. Slatkin,

      First, I appreciate you posting here and engaging people. Thank you.

      I read your full article, and I respectfully believe you’re missing the forest for the trees.

      I do think that most viewers understand that Lydia’s conduct in the master class would get her fired, for example. The point of that unrealistic scene was to have this moment where most of the audience is likely cheering Tar’s slap down of “wokeness,” but then as the film progresses, rethink and reevaluate that moment.

      As I saw it, a lot of what Tar explores in the classical music world is how conductors make themselves the center of attention, above both the composer and the audience. As I read that scene, Field’s criticism of the student isn’t the wokeness, but performing music that few audiences would actually enjoy — they’re just doing something for their own personal benefit. It reminds me of the quote about modern music sounding like a piano being pushed down the stairs which I believe is attributed to Daniel Barenboim — who really enjoys it except musicologists? And then Tar is a hypocrite — she castigates the student for bringing his identity and personal beliefs into the music, but she does the exact same thing.

      • Friedrich Smetana says:

        I’m afraid you’ve completely misunderstood what Mr. Slatkin’s point is. His text is not a pedantic analysis of what in the film more or less imitates the reality. But he is undoubtedly bothered that the film’s depiction of the musical world is rather a misrepresentantion in front broader public, and furthermore that the soundtrack sounds sloppy. And that really shouldn’t happen to a film set in music business.

    • Jacek says:

      This is a movie with actors acting not an audition for a conductor position. Yes, I read your post and I think you are focused on technical stuff rather sexual abuse of the music industry.

    • Madeleine Richardson says:

      I found the article very interesting and informative.

    • Bone says:

      As a movie reviewer, you make a fine conductor.

    • tarstage says:

      As one of the musicians involved in the onstage part of the movie, I can ensure you we actually played after Blanchetts beat (or at least we tried – having quite a bit of fun in the process) and this was recorded live with her – well, over and over of course. If there are problems with synchronisation then it’s because of cuts. Blanchett came prepared with a kind of choreography for the few bars we recorded. In preparation she worked with a trainer who taught her some moves and attitude. Nothing but respect for her, taking this so seriously and trying to provide the real thing.
      She is an actress and this is just a movie – maybe one should not take this too seriously in general – but it kept me thinking about the question how much musicians are conditioned to blindly react to a certain set of moves. I mean there are plenty of bad conductors around mainly providing some kind of pre-rehearsed choreography instead of letting the music flow or reacting to what’s happening on stage.
      In compare to them she did not too bad I thought.

    • Nun says:

      I agree, details matter, making a performance Oscar worthy or not, seeing Blanchett not syncing correctly in her conducting would be like seeing De Niro jabbing unconvincingly in Raging Bull, or Jamie Foxx singing and playing the piano only approximately like Ray Charles in Ray…

    • Angela Giblin says:

      Thank you for your precise and informative review, Mr. Slatkin. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I will. I’m looking forward to it.

  • Leporello says:

    That movie is about as real as reality
    television !

  • TITUREL says:

    Most films about classical music- or dance, or art- tend to reveal a lack of genuine understanding of the subject. Think of Amy Irving and Richard Dreyfus in The Competition, as just a single example. All my friends who are doctors cringe at TV medical dramas. New Amsterdam, anyone? Hollywood often gets the style, but not the substance.

    • Adam Stern says:

      For what it’s worth…
      I worked on the film “The Competition” and got to know its writer/director, Joel Oliansky. Mr. Oliansky was kind enough to let me read his first draft, a very different document than that which was filmed: it focused much more on the hardships of being a hopeful young musician, the countless hours of practicing, the musical politics and posturing, the rejection… The studio execs, who had more power than Oliansky (it was his first theatrical film), essentially told him, “America isn’t going to go for all that artistic stuff…take out a bunch of the music, and put in more love story.” The result was a far lesser film than it could have been.

  • J Barcelo says:

    Riveting? I thought it was dull. The first 45 minutes just plodded and went nowhere. Could have used a good action sequence, a car chase, a Phantom of the Concert Hall…anything to wake up the audience. Or maybe they should have used another 5th symphony: Shostakovich for some fireworks…whatever this movie was, “riveting” it was not. At least for me.

  • Sea Mint says:

    For the love of god, this movie isn’t trying to be what most of you think it is. If we had a bunch of niche insiders write and direct this film, it would be uninteresting and unwatchable.

  • lol says:

    Mr. Slatkin would be delighted to know that, since musicians and actors are members of different unions, any musician who is playing their instrument for real on film cannot be hired for a speaking role. That’s why in any film where a performer is playing music, if the character has any lines they will be very obviously faking their performance. Being a conductor, I doubt Mr. Slatkin has any regard for labour regulations, though, and just thought it would be self-pleasing to do a pedantic write-up on a music-related film. Get a grip.

    • Leonard Slatkin says:

      How does this explain the ability of the cellist in Tar to both play and speak? I understand that she actually was the performer.

    • Charlotte says:

      You are assuming that the US union structure is the same elsewhere. Since the orchestra is from Germany, it is filmed (mostly) in Germany, the rules are different. I think, both orchestra members and film actors (Filmschaffende) are in different subgroups of the same union, ver.di (vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft).

    • Anonymous Bosch says:

      So shall we all assume all of those scaled-down productions of musicals emanating from Donmar Warehouse/(Off-) Broadway in which cast members sing, speak, and play an instrument (why always Sondheim?) are illegal?

      You post is absurd, discourteous, and divisive.

    • SVM says:

      The comment by “lol” demonstrates some of the serious practical problems with “closed shop” agreements. However, “lol” is wrong to characterise such “labour regulations” as unavoidable in “any film”. In many jurisdictions, it is illegal to discriminate against a non-unionised worker (and also illegal to require him/her to join a union as a condition of engagement). So, if the film had been shot in (what American English terms) a “right to work” jurisdiction (such as most of Europe, including the UK), then there would have been no barrier to hiring a professional musician.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I must say that Leonard Slatkin, with his tedious dissections and explications, is showing alarming signs of Mengelbergitis.
    I have not yet seen Tar, but it seems to me all this back and forth jousting is beside the point: the main thing is that the film exposes an audience to classical music – an audience some of whose members might not have heard classical music before.
    If seeing Tar inspires even one person to leave the theatre with a newfound curiosity about the music, and that person then investigates it further by buying a CD or download, or going to a symphony concert, then a big BRAVO to everyone involved in making the film.

    • Thornhill says:

      Apparently searches for “Mahler 5” on Spotify shot up after the movie was released.

    • Sue sonata form says:

      Just like “Citizen Kane” inspired people to become journalists!!! Or “The Paradine Case” for them to become lawyers.

    • Jules says:

      Get back to ys when you’ve actually seen the movie.

    • Grumpy old man says:

      Mr Bottini,
      Firstly, while the discourse on this site is frequently discourteous, I think outright rudeness like in your and other postings is disgraceful.

      Secondly, the argument that the real benefit is exposure to classical music is pretty weak. This isn’t Brief Encounter, or The Living Daylights. It is hard to see why someone who had no previous interest in classical music would watch this film in the first place. Any more than Borg vs McEnroe might enthuse those who had previously not been aware of tennis. Whatever revelations there may be in this film, i cant believe it is introducing Elgar or Mahler to new audiences. I think it is a film primarily *for* those with enough interest in classical music to care about the psychological background. Else they might as well not put so much effort into getting the music (almost) right.

  • anmarie says:

    Mr. Slatkin, in his essay, mentions a planned “fictional movie about a composer who writes his masterpiece while isolated in a castle.”

    Does anyone know the title or have other information?

  • Cindy says:

    I think the purpose of putting the credits at the beginning of the film was a thematic statement. It centered how something large requires so many individual contributions before beginning a film about a cult of personality.

    It really is amazing how classical insiders have made this movie about themselves. And fittingly, the general public doesn’t—and shouldn’t—care much of what these people have to say.

    Now, if Mr. Slatkin devoted a similar amount of care and energy to his MD posts and conducting engagements, maybe this art form would get a little more traction.

    • Thornhill says:


      Opening the film with what are essentially the end credits was a powerful statement about how there are literally hundreds of people who work together to bring a single work of art to life, but we perpetuate this myth of it all being driven by a single individual. With film, for example, it’s the “auteur” director.

      And what I’d argue that Tar did get quite right about conducting, is that while Tar depicts herself like an auteur director, she actually has a small group of advisors who she consults with after rehearsals, who she relies on. (And the best documentaries about the classical music rehearsal process show how conducts do in fact solicit the input of numerous people to help them fine-tune the performance.)

      • CRWang says:

        I haven’t thought about the reason for the tedious opening credits as I watched the film. This makes sense now and I appreciate it more.

  • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

    Regarding some of the vicious lynch-mob reactions to Maestro Slatkin’s literate piece on the aforementioned film: is it really necessary to abuse him for having an opinion on a subject in which he is impeccably accredited? This is all so disturbing; an acknowledged professional speaks his mind -in passing, quite well- about something most assuredly within his métier and something like this happens: “Now, if Mr. Slatkin devoted a similar amount of care and energy to his MD posts and conducting engagements, maybe this art form would get a little more traction.” Uncalled for, despicable, pretentiously disrespectful. Shame on you for such callousness! (Full disclosure: I have no personal or professional links with Maestro Slatkin. I admire, without reservations, his mastery of his craft.)

    • NotToneDeaf says:

      But yet his nastiness about Bernstein is acceptable?

      • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

        Dear NotToneDeaf: Since I have shed more tears than would be considered “healthy” listening -time and again- to Maestro Bernstein’s last two renditions of Mahler’s symphonies 2 & 3 (those two as an example) with the NYPO, I am pretty sure I would have been bothered (and much surprised) if Maestro Slatkin had indeed maliciously trashed his benemeritiori colleague. Perhaps I should end my incursion here as I do not ride horses, hence I could be on one (?) in the process of writing these lines. I regret confirming that there a some who feel that showing respect for your betters is a sign of weakness or starry-eyed naiveté. Next time I shall begin in this manner: “If I may venture to express my opinion…”

    • Bone says:

      I’m sure the maestro appreciates your white knighting; maybe you could remind him that his forte is conducting, not movie reviews.

    • Unnecessary says:

      No – but it is somewhat baffling to see that given he is writing “on a subject in which he is impeccably accredited” he not only manages to discredit the whole point of the film and totally miss its narrative core, but also the real musicians involved in making it – in short, his colleagues – like the ‘real orchestra’ (London Symphony Orchestra and Dresden Philharmonie), ‘whoever conducted the actual soundtrack’ (Natalie Murray Beale) a ‘principal trumpet’ (almost all the performing musicians in the film are the real ones from the Dresden Philhamonie) and instead writes a somewhat preachy school-teacher report on the obvious which is that Blanchett is miming and only acting. In short, his analysis and review of this film is a bizarre one to say the least, that also belittles the real musicians who informed and worked on creating a work of – surprise – fiction.

    • Anonymous says:

      Mr. Slatkin has thick skin, I’m sure. But thank you Rafael, for coming to his aid.

      • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:

        Anonymous, with all due respect, this is Leonard Slatkin for me: some decades ago, he is guesting with the Chicago Symphony, doing an ad-hoc version of Pictures at an Exhibition, assembled from the arrangements by various notables, among them Ravel’s. Maestro Slatkin is conducting and also acting (superbly, that speaking voice!) as MC. He chose to keep Ravel’s approach to “Samuel Gordon und Schmuyle.” Maestro Slatkin explained, and here’s the object lesson in being classy: “Of course, Mr. Ravel did not have available to play this most difficult of trumpet parts Mr. Adolph Herseth.” The hall ERUPTED in an ovation that went on for several seconds. And that is Maestro Slatkin for me…

  • Robert Holmén says:

    I like reading credits.

  • Larry W says:

    Some posters here would benefit from reading Mr. Slatkin’s entire article. It concludes:
    “With all that said, I was engrossed for the entire length of the film. It is certainly worth seeing, but viewers need more than a passing knowledge of classical music to appreciate many of the references made.”

  • Patty Smith says:

    ‘I didn’t base the character of Lydia Tár on anyone’ – Cate Blanchett in conversation with Classic FM



  • NotToneDeaf says:

    I can’t imagine what Mr. Slatkin felt he would gain by publicly slamming Leonard Bernstein. Slatkin has never been known for his discretion or taste but this is a new low.

  • Francisco M says:

    There’s a key point I think Maestro Slatkin may have not picked up on. Of course it’s ridiculous to expect members of the cello section to prepare Elgar’s Cello Concerto with three days’ notice. That was a purposeful plot point. Lydia Tar was already obsessed with the young cellist and was trying to stack the deck in her favor. She knew the young Russian had competed with the Elgar already and could get up to speed quickly. That’s why she picked the piece and conjured the situation to elevate the cellist’s status quickly while also drawing her closer to her orbit.

    I knew such a movie was going to get a lot wrong for no other reason that it’s a movie and movies dramatically compress and take other liberties for entertainment purposes. All in all I enjoyed it quite a bit, much more so on the second viewing than the first.

  • Rob says:

    They should have got you instead Leonard and called it:


    I know a great topic for a film, the life of Nelson Riddle.

  • Hilary says:

    I’ll probably squirm in places when I see the film but the overall critical reception has been pretty good : 80% and 3.6/5. This is the most important thing in the scheme of things.

  • Madeleine Richardson says:

    I won’t be seeing it. I’ll stick to the real thing.

  • Adam Stern says:

    Couldn’t resist having a go at a limerick:

    Here’s my take on that new movie, “Tár”:
    Didn’t care for Cate Blanchett (its star).
    Lots of twitching and raving
    And poor baton-waving.
    A quality film? Pas d’espoir.

  • Max Raimi says:

    To me, this misses the point. “Amadeus” was a terrific film even though a lot of what happened in it couldn’t possibly have happened in real life. Mozart would have never written “Figaro” on spec, for example. So I certainly forgive Tar for not getting a lot of details about the world of major symphony orchestras right.
    But what makes Amadeus great, and Tar (at least to me) unwatchable is that the characters in the older film are recognizably human and driven by understandable human motivations. Whereas I have never encountered anybody who bears the slightest resemblance in how they seek what they need in life to the preposterous characters in Tar.

  • Jake says:

    It is an art film.

  • Dave says:

    ” As a conductor, Blanchett does a more-than-credible job of emulating a podium presence. But make no mistake, she is not actually the one conducting.”

    Right Leonard… when I watched Top Gun, I understood that Tom Cruise wasn’t really flying the plane also. That’s called acting.

    • Another says:

      Dave, actually you make a good point. The publicity around Cate Blanchette conducting in this film is maybe similar to the comments that “Tom Cruise does all his own stunts”. Perhaps true, perhaps impressive, but there is no suggestion that it is anything other than a carefully worked out set piece to camera.
      That is not the same thing as conducting.

      But Tom Cruise did fly the planes, no ?

  • Been Here Before says:

    Too many words about two and a half hours of boredom and pompous nonsense. This film is not about music, in fact it has nothing to do with music.

  • Fiddleman says:

    There is nothing wrong with Mr. Slatkin, as a professional conductor, writing on his own website, pointing out the inaccuracies of this film. Of course it is not a documentary but the movie goes to great trouble trying to look authentic by setting the plot in a real time and place, name dropping real classical music musicians, and even employing the writer Adam Gopnik to play himself as an Interviewer in the movie. Mr. Slatkin should be applauded for his candor and for sharing his observations.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    It’s a movie not a documentary.

    Now go out there and “win one for the Gipper”

  • M2N2K says:

    The comments by Maestro Leonard Slatkin may be useful for laypeople but are entirely obvious to those of us who know the orchestral classical music world from inside. The movie is certainly imperfect in certain details, but it made several important points that are relevant for our times and is sufficiently ambiguous to be interesting. The title role is realized powerfully and convincingly by Cate Blanchett.


    Tar schedules auditions for the Elgar precisely because her new ‘favorite’ has the piece ‘at the ready.’ It makes sense within the plot line, even if real orchestral practice would preclude it being handled that way. I think raking the film over the coals of authenticity is somewhat cheap. There are very few — if any — film fictions about artists that can survive that. To insiders in the know, even a lot of documentaries raise an eyebrow or two.

  • Linda Bell says:

    Missed the point, much?

  • i says:


  • Scgal says:

    Actually the recording was done live with cate doing the conducting. Whoever wrote this didn’t do their research.

  • Chris Jarrett says:

    I was terribly bored for the first 2 hours, but more than that upset about the unrealistic way the classical music “business” was represented. The stiffness of almost all the participators was such a stereotype that it made me angry. Orchestras do anything but sit and listen quietly to a conductor while she phlosophizes. They want to know what to do and are the most restless bunch of grown up children around. Blanchett’s gestures, as well, were so lost in ecstasy that no orchestra could have followed whatever it was she was trying to represent.