Does knowing too much about an artist affect your ability to appreciate the art? How about an actor who spouts off on politics, or a filmmaker who engages in bad behavior?
This subject gets narrowed to one artist — a big one — in the engaging documentary “Wagner & Me.” Our host here is the English comedian-actor-author Stephen Fry, who gabs in his witty way throughout this program.
Fry admits that his love affair with the music and drama of Richard Wagner began in childhood, and he has remained a besotted fan of the composer to this day. As an adult, Fry has had to arm-wrestle his unabashed love of Wagner’s art with the realities of Wagner’s personality as a human being.
The notable stumbling blocks include Wagner’s stated anti-Semitism and the way his soaring music was used by Hitler and the Nazis as a wellspring for their nationalistic ideologies. The movie weaves from Fry’s recounting of the greatness of Wagner’s genius to passages where he explores the “yes, but…” side of the equation.
This means Fry gets to travel to places associated with Wagner’s life: his home in Switzerland, the crazy Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria (built by Wagner’s patron Ludwig II), and finally the shrine of Bayreuth, the town where a special theater was built for Wagner before he would unleash his “Ring of the Nibelungen” cycle upon the world.
Fry brings all the fanboy enthusiasm he can muster, which is a lot, whether he’s plucking out notes on Wagner’s own piano (as an expert explains the complexity of a particular chord from “Tristan and Isolde”) or opening the door to walk into the theater in Bayreuth for the first time, a moment Fry likens to a religious rite.
Since this is the closest most of us will come to stepping in these places, we get to share the experience. Speaking of which, if the movie inspires you to travel to Bayreuth, be advised the wait is currently seven years for tickets.
Fry gazes at his hand after he shakes hands with Wagner’s great-granddaughter, who continues to help run the Bayreuth festival. That’s when you know he’s taken his fandom too far, and it makes you wonder whether he’s missing the idea that his own unrestrained love of Wagner might be connected to the same kind of delirium that would inspire Hitler to read a justification of German racial superiority in Wagner’s stories and music.
A sober note is sounded when Fry interviews a survivor of the concentration camps, whose ability to play the cello saved her as a child. She’s a little more skeptical about those heroic tales and the gigantic music.
And her skepticism is just the right note for this interesting project: “Wagner & Me” is a fan’s notes smudged with regret.