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Reel harmony Musicians discuss the films that get the magic and mystery of music right

Music is a big, glorious mystery. It's not easy to capture on film.

A song you hear on the radio or at the gym can begin, strangely, to haunt you.

Or you could be listening to a Mozart symphony, when you suddenly wonder what makes a shiver go through you and tears come into your eyes.

Sometimes, music sneaks up on you. You might go out to hear a jazz group or see a rock show - and the next day, a tune is lingering in your mind, making you see the world a little bit differently.

How do you put this magic into words? Even more challengingly, how do you put it into movies?

Perhaps it can't be done. But we can't stop trying. The recently released film "La Vie En Rose" about the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, traces her life from her childhood on the streets of Paris to her fame in the world's greatest music halls. It explores what, exactly, made Piaf the great artist she was.

Many other movies have tried, with varying degrees of success, to celebrate or shed light on this elusive, inexplicable art form we call music. We wanted to find a few that made for good summer viewing. So we asked musicians around town to tell us about movies about music they thought rang true. Movies that, you could say, struck a chord.

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Their answers were often surprising:

Kevin O'Brien, Bassist for the gypsy jazz band Babik:

"Humoresque," 1946, with John Garfield and Joan Crawford

"He's a wonderful classical pianist, and she's a woman who's in a dead marriage. John Garfield plays for her, and she's impressed, and eventually they start having an affair." O'Brien shouts over the noise of the Allen Street Hardware Cafe, where Babik plays every Wednesday. "He's totally possessed by music. Tragedy ensues. It's about how someone can be consumed by music. No one else can be a part of his life the way music is."

Sebnem Mekinulov, soprano:

"The Music Lovers," 1970, starring Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson.

The Turkish-born Mekinulov, who will be a soloist at Artpark in the BPO's July 19 performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, has a weakness for movies about the great masters. She admires "Amadeus," about Mozart, and "Wagner," Richard Burton's epic about Richard Wagner.

She was a student at Juilliard when she first saw "The Music Lovers," about troubled composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. "I remember every moment," she says. "It's about his mother emotionally abusing him. He was addicted to his mother, but he hated her. He was so confused. He goes to the conservatory and plays his First Piano Concerto. All the faculty make fun of him. 'Too many chords,' they say. 'This is not playable. This is stupid.' He gets so upset, but he doesn't give up. I was loving every minute."

Guy Boleri, cabaret pianist:

"Young Man with a Horn," 1950, with Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Doris Day; soundtrack by Harry James.

"It's a very intense movie about a young trumpet player, what he goes through," says Boleri, who often plays at the Buffalo Club. "It's about personality issues, and sacrificing your integrity for commercial success. And there's a black actor who played an over-the-hill trumpet player. He and Kirk Douglas are friends. I don't know if it would hold up now," Boleri says. "But it's beautifully done. Sad without being maudlin."

Janice Mitchell, jazz singer:

"The Piano," 1993, starring Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel.

A former Raelette, Mitchell didn't appear to have any strong opinions on the Ray Charles biopic "Ray." Instead, she thinks back to this atmospheric film in which Hunter played a repressed woman with an old upright piano.

"It's been such a long time since I saw it. I remember the feeling that it brought to me more than the exact plot," she reflects. "I think her first husband had cut one of her fingers off - he didn't want her to play the piano. But the piano brought out who she was, so she wound up with someone who understood her. He was kind of a rugged guy, but the piano brought out his tenderness and her sensuality. She didn't even talk. She relied on the piano to project her emotions.

"I think we love the movies we can see ourselves in," Mitchell muses. "I also wound up with a guy who understands me."

Ana Lia Vafai, violinist:

"Little Voice," 1998, starring Michael Caine, Ewan McGregor and Jane Horrocks.

Vafai, a musician at City Honors School, is performing at several Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra concerts this summer. "I love 'Amadeus' and 'Shine,' she says, "but my favorite is 'Little Voice.' The main character is a very shy, hidden talent. She comes out of her shell when she sings. I think that's what happens to me, too."

Vafai admires the talents of the singer in the movie. "She does the most amazing vocal impersonations of singers like Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe and many others."

George Jones, jazz pianist:

"Let's Get Lost," 1989, documentary about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.

"It's a very artful combination of comedy and tragedy," says Jones, who plays at Oliver's on Friday and Saturday nights. "There are shots of Chet in his later life and a dramatization of early years with an actor playing him.

"The movie is an interesting combination of tragedy and humor," he adds. "It has tremendous tragedy, but a humorous depiction of an artist somewhat out of sync with social mores of the time."

JoAnn Falletta,

Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra music director:

"Spring Symphony," 1986 (German), with Nastassja Kinski and Herbert Gronemeyer.

"Spring Symphony" is a dramatization of the relationship between Robert Schumann and his wife, the celebrated 19th century pianist and composer Clara Schumann. "The reason I love it is that it does not portray Robert and Clara as stuffy figures but as two young people deeply in love with many problems - including parents," Falletta says.

"'Bride of the Wind,' the story of Alma Mahler, is also great," she adds, referring to a movie about composer Gustav Mahler and his wife, Alma. "And 'The Competition' is interesting."

Dave Elder, bassist, Party Squad:

"Shine," 1996, starring Geoffrey Rush and Lynn Redgrave.

It was early in the morning for Elder. He had just played the night before at the Stillwater, where Party Squad serenades the courtyard on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. But he mentioned almost immediately this bittersweet portrait of eccentric concert pianist David Helfgott.

"'Shine' was an inspiring movie about a man who was force-fed music," he says. "It's about how music was a joy to his life, but it also explored the personal relationship with his father, who overdid it. The experience didn't destroy him, but it harmed him. It's a powerful movie."

Lara Somogyi, harpist:

"The Sound of Music," 1965, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer

An Orchard Park High School harpist who will be performing with the BPO at 7 p.m. July 24 in Batavia's Centennial Park, Somogyi says this movie version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical tops her list. But she also mentions "Mr. Holland's Opus," "Music of the Heart," "Raise Your Voice" and "School of Rock."

"All these movies depict different people in different circumstances determined to do what they love - music," she explains. "They overcome obstacles, and defy difficult situations, all just to keep their passions. That really rings true for me personally, even if the stories in the movies are not exactly my situation. I love music and playing harp so much that I would be willing to sacrifice and overcome anything to keep doing what I love."

Lee Ron Zydeco

(aka Ron Davis), accordion player:

"The Last Waltz," 1978, documentary about the Band at San Francisco's Winterland in 1976.

"The guests include everyone from Neil Diamond to Van Morrison to Neil Young," says Lee Ron. "They also did backstage scenes. It's an interesting look at all the people involved.

"The Band was such an influence, particularly in Buffalo, on bands like the Ravens," he adds. "That was our little community of people. Everyone played the Band's songs. It was interesting, going behind the scenes, seeing how these guys worked and what made them tick. Especially to the blues/R&B community, it was a very seminal movie."

Sharon Bailey, jazz singer:

"Ray," 2004, starring Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington.

Bailey is in the middle of cell phone problems when the question is put to her. She can't talk at great length. But she names, without any hesitation, this biopic about Ray Charles. And she adds: "It's pretty authentic."

Ann Philippone, boogie pianist:

"Madame Souzatska," 1988, starring Shirley MacLaine as a tyrannical piano teacher.

"'Madam Souzatska' was terrifying in a way that was true," says Philippone, who is classically trained and now teaches piano herself. "I had a teacher who was nuts the way Madam Souzatska was. In the movie, she loves her students, but she kind of lives through them. And she's reliving, in her mind, the horrible experience she had when she had a memory slip at a recital and cried and ran out of the room. My piano professor had a similar experience. He went to play his recital, and he was playing Book One of the Debussy Preludes and had a huge memory slip. He was never right after that."

"Seeing the movie was almost like reliving my past, the tortures and the joys," Philippone reflects. "Now, when I'm teaching, I'm very conscious that I want my students enjoying it."


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