Don’t worry if you don’t know your Tchaikovsky. It would be easy to cast a glance at the plot of The Concert and assume that it must be a film for classical music aficionados and/or those who know their Soviet politics well. But Radu Mihaileanu’s musical comedy drama isn’t excessively knowing – far from it, in fact.
Once a world-renowned conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra, Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) was fired for hiring Jews and now works as the Bolshoi’s cleaner. He finds a fax inviting them to play a concert at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris and promptly pinches it. Instead of the real Bolshoi, the Châtelet will be entertained by a ramshackle bunch of former musicians pretending to be the Bolshoi, managed by die-hard Communist and former manager Ivan Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov) – who once wrecked Andrei’s career. So it’s an underdog story on one level, filled with zippy slapstick and, at times, heavily stereotyped humour. It doesn’t always walk the line between comedy and sentiment quite so well, but The Concert is so good-natured that you can’t help but forgive it, especially with scenes such as a fake passport factory line set up in … an airport.
Then there’s Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent), the virtuoso violinist Andrei requests as a soloist and whose background is something of a mystery. It’s worth noting that while it’s thoroughly implausible that a soloist, no matter how brilliant, could not play with an orchestra without prior rehearsal, and she probably shouldn’t be saying “I’ve never played Tchaikovsky!” the day before she’s meant to perform the piece, but it’s not so far-fetched to think that such a performance could be pulled together at short notice. Said soloist would indeed need to have rehearsed with the orchestra, but they would only need one rehearsal. Tchaikovsky was a genius composer, but you don’t need to know that, any more than you need to understand the political background to appreciate The Concert. It does a very good job of explaining its own context without trowelling it on too heavily, and as a result also serves as something of a reminder that a lot of the things we take for granted – being allowed to speak freely to the press without fear of going to prison, for example – are not afforded to everyone in the world.
Then there’s the concert itself, which is wonderful. This isn’t just a nice musical number tacked onto the end, it’s the emotional climax of the entire film. And while a music recital may not sound like a hugely emotive finale, you will be rooting for this concert to go well as hard as you have rooted for any on-screen triumph. It’s the speeding bus with the bomb on board. It’s the final dance number in Dirty Dancing. It’s the perfect way to end a film that’s heartfelt and thought-provoking in equal measures.