on October 17, 2003 by Annlee Ellingson
Around the same time that the Red Scare was sweeping the United States, targeting the creative community in Hollywood and damning uncooperative artists to the blacklist, a similar trend was interestingly taking place in the very nation so feared here. In 1948, Soviet composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, the subject of this documentary, were denounced by their country, accused of formalism, or focusing on form rather than writing works that were easily understood or served a higher purpose. According to their accusers, they were doing nothing to further the Soviet ideal; they were anti-people.

This proclamation devastated Khachaturian, who had been vice president of the very Organizing Committee of the Union of Soviet Composers that denounced him. Born in Georgia, the composer had long integrated innovative strains and instruments from his Armenian heritage into his music--indeed, the film juxtaposes imagery from the countryside of his childhood with performances of his music by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra: Khachaturian was the very epitome of a composer of the people. He had a very difficult time once friends began to turn their backs on him and, as a result, it is suspected that much more great music was lost. Yet he was hopeful that his ballet "Spartacus," whom Marx was said to have admired, would so inspire Stalin that he would reverse his policies. Unfortunately, the Soviet leader died before the piece was finished and would never see a performance.

The film is based on Khachaturian's writings, and so the filmmakers have made the interesting choice of narrating it in the first person. Juxtaposed with interviews with key people from Khachaturian's life--his son, the man who replaced him in the Union and read the proclamation denouncing him--the use of "I" can be disorienting.But the star of this film is Khachaturian's music, and the filmmakers wisely let it speak for itself, allowing long stretches of uninterrupted listening. It is unfortunate that a bigger budget could not be had for more creatively filmed scenes of performances of his ballets: With the exception of the final profiled piece, "Spartacus," the segments are unimaginatively photographed--static shots over the heads of an audience. Still, it is fascinating to learn the history behind the composition of these familiar melodies. Narrated by Eric Bogosian. Directed and produced by Peter Rosen. Written by Bill Van Horn. A Seventh Art release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 83 min.

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