For once, a movie’s Japanese release title tops the original — that exclamation mark at the end of “Orchestra!” captures the clunky exuberance of this story that clutches at the hearts and ears of all music lovers, whatever the genre.
Internationally known (and renowned), “Le Concert” is the tale of a band of misfit musicians reassembled as the Bolshoi Orchestra after a 30-year absence. Though the film’s predictability comes at you like an overly enthusiastic horn section, there’s no denying its generous spirit and a genuine reverence for classical music, in particular Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35. By the end of the film, you’ll probably be able to hum it in your sleep.
Directed by Radu Mihaileanu, “Le Concert” plays like a Russian brand of “The Blues Brothers,” minus the car stunts and mayhem but with a similar deadpan humor bouncing off the premise of a self-imposed musical “mission.” In “Blues Brothers” Jake Blues (John Belushi) gets his band back together after a three-year prison stint and they all hit the road until reaching a climactic concert scene. “Le Concert,” on the other hand, is Russian, which in this case means protagonist Andrei (Aleksei Guskov) endures a much longer punishment and “hitting the road” involves Russia’s notoriously unreliable public transportation.
Three decades ago, Andrei was the Bolshoi Orchestra’s hotshot conductor with a brilliant future stretched before him, but a personnel problem (he made the mistake of hiring Jewish musicians during the anti-Semitic Brezhnev era) resulted in a major fall from grace and exclusion from the elite music scene. Since then, Andrei has been mopping the floors of the concert hall where he had once taken center stage, and his group of trusted musicians have long since left, scattered and faded into obscurity. But when Andrei hears that the current Bolshoi Orchestra has been invited to play at the Chatelet in Paris, he decides to hijack the whole event by stealing the commission fax, donning a tux and showing up as the conductor with his own reassembled orchestra (the real Bolshoi folks need never know, or so he hopes). Never mind that his former cellist, Sacha (Dmitri Nazarov), is now an ambulance driver, or that other members have sold off their instruments and joined the Russian Mafia, not to mention the general reluctance on the part of everyone to pick up where they left off so many years back. Grumbling and moaning like the peasant revolutionaries in “War and Peace,” the orchestra agrees to play on the condition of cash up-front and unlimited access to booze, cigarettes and cell phones.
The humor of “Le Concert” is undercut by a Siberian bleakness — the laughs are wintry and stick in the throat like a morsel of stale bread. Take the scene where Andrei, standing at the Moscow Airport check-in counter, waits for the members of his orchestra to show up . . . and they don’t. It turns out they’ve opted to walk to the airport instead of shelling out the transportation fare, and a scene depicts them bundled up in heavy woolen overcoats, trudging along single file carrying bulging bags and instrument cases. Snazzy cars speed alongside them and the mood is rampant with comic schizophrenia, as if the siege of Leningrad has inexplicably merged with modern-day traffic.
While Andrei’s orchestra is intent on saving money, Andrei is intent on bringing on Parisian violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent from “Inglorious Basterds”), slated as the soloist for the real Bolshoi’s big event. Anne-Marie appears a little stuck-up at first, but thaws when she sees some of the talent Andrei has brought over (namely in Sacha’s soulful cello playing). She is, however, aghast at the difficulties of getting a simple rehearsal together, as most of the orchestra seem primarily interested in hitting the tourist spots or guzzling drinks in cafes. The capper is when a father-son French-horn duo ignore the schedule altogether to try and peddle a suitcase full of caviar they brought with them to French bistro chefs, only to discover that the same caviar can be purchased at a supermarket for a fraction of the price.
Mihaileanu lays on the capitalism cliches a little too thick at times, but his ultimate intentions are definitely apolitical and in the right place. In the end, the concert (performed by the Budapest Orchestra) is both the film’s justification and definition, delivered with the passion of avenging angels. At one point, Andrei says: “The only true communism is in the orchestra,” and the meaning hits home with full force as the music soars in ecstasy. It definitely deserves a mention in Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.”