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Originally published Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 3:01 PM

Movie review

'Pianomania' documentary may have sounded like a good idea

"Pianomania," a documentary about piano tuners and technicians, is potentially interesting, but not when it has to compete with dramatic footage of musicians such as Lang Lang actually playing the piano. The film is playing at the Varsity, in Seattle.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars

'Pianomania,' a documentary directed by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis. 93 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In German and English, with English subtitles when necessary. Varsity.

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Sometimes a behind-the-scenes documentary can be wonderfully illuminating; sometimes it can reinforce the feeling that what's behind the scenes isn't quite as cinematically compelling as what's in front of the scenery. "Pianomania," directed by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis, has its moments, but overall it falls into the latter category. Would you rather, for example, watch and listen to the great Lang Lang play the piano, or follow a technician into the basement to search for just the right piano stool? If you're eagerly headed toward that basement, this might be the movie for you; the rest of us just wish the music would continue.

"Pianomania" follows some months in the working life of Stefan Knüpfe, a jovial fellow who is Steinway & Sons' chief technician and master tuner in Vienna, Austria. His job is an endless "search for the perfect sound," as he works with pianists to help them find just the right instrument and tone. Sometimes this is fascinating, as when we learn that even the tiniest amount of dust can change a piano's sound, or when we see the pianos intricately taken apart, like surgery. But more often, we're watching Knüpfe meticulously tuning a piano (a crucial and delicate process but not a particularly visual one), or seeing him constantly run up and down the stairs at a Vienna concert hall, or learning that "the piano movers in Melbourne are not particularly organized."

The film has several electric concert excerpts, such as Lang Lang playing the last moments of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody" as if he's engaged in a savage duel with the instrument. But they're disappointingly brief. "Pianomania" is at times engaging but ultimately frustrating; you keep thinking that there's a better documentary nearby, just behind another door.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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