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Originally published Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 3:00 PM

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‘Wagner & Me’: Love of German composer’s music, tainted by history

In ‘Wagner & Me,’ actor/writer Stephen Fry takes viewers through his personal struggle to reconcile his love for the German composer’s music with its fraught legacy.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3.5 stars

“Wagner & Me,” a documentary featuring Stephen Fry. Directed by Patrick McGrady. 89 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.

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I had some of the same misgivings as Mr. Fry but I got over them when I heard the... MORE
Mark Twain said it best: "The music of Wagner is not as bad as it sounds." MORE

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Any time spent with the erudite actor/writer Stephen Fry is a pleasure, and therefore the documentary “Wagner & Me,” in which Fry spends nearly 90 minutes contemplating his passion for the music of Richard Wagner, flies by as if on wings. But though Fry’s not above babbling like a plummy-toned fanboy (and knows it, which makes him all the more charming), this isn’t a simple cinematic love letter. Wagner was a professed anti-Semite, his descendants were closely tied to the Nazi movement and Hitler was one of the composer’s biggest fans. Fry, himself a Jew who lost relatives in the Holocaust, is troubled by these associations and embarks on a journey through the composer’s life, in the hope of finding some closure.

We watch Fry, invariably clad in incongruously bright trousers, awed by the grandeur and history of the Bayreuth Festival and its theater, designed and built by the composer. (He mimes conducting there, and dissolves into giggles. “I feel like a child in a sweet-shop,” he enthuses.) In Nuremberg, where Hitler led rallies that featured Wagner’s music, he sits and muses, “deeply uncomfortable,” carefully forming his thoughts aloud. He listens, rapt, as a pianist plays Wagner on the composer’s own piano, chiming in with the final note (endearingly getting it wrong). And he talks to an Auschwitz survivor, a musician herself, who wonders why Fry needs to go to Wagner’s shrine to hear his operas (“Why can’t you just listen at home?”), but who encourages him to make up his own mind.

Ultimately, the music that Fry first heard as a child “on my father’s gramophone” comes first for him, and much of the pleasure of “Wagner & Me” is that Fry lets us see how art transforms him. There is, nonetheless, some unresolved discord for him, to borrow some music lingo used in the film. Fry describes Wagner’s work as a beautiful, lavish silken tapestry with a stain on it. “For some people, that stain ruins the whole work,” he says. “For others, it is just something that you have to face up to.”

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

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