What playing the piano means in the movies

One of the ways to a moviegoer's heart is through a piano scene. Just ask Bill Murray, Tom Hanks, Judy Garland, and more...

There’s a scene in Shine (1996) where a confused, shambling character wanders into a restaurant and sits at the piano. The customers mock him, and the owner tries to move him away, but suddenly he starts to play; it’s Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight Of The Bumblebee,” and everyone is silenced by his sheer talent.

We are all shocked out of our assumptions about that character (who turns out to be the concert pianist David Helfgott) because there’s something about the ability to play the piano really well that continues to captivate us. It’s not only to do with the amount of craft and energy that must go into mastering an instrument like the piano. It’s also to do with the way that music moves us, and so it’s the combination of admiration and entertainment that has made piano playing an act that you see a lot in movies, old and new.

Here’s a look at some of the ways that writers and directors have used our fascination with the piano to give added meaning to their movies, starting with perhaps the most famous piano in movie history:

A Sensitive Soul

“You played it for her, you can play it for me,” says Rick to Sam the piano player in Casablanca (1942). The piano is a presence all of its own in Rick’s Bar, a source of memories and emotions that Rick is otherwise unable to express. It represents the softer side of him, and his heartbreak – all the things he can’t ever communicate out loud.

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Skip ahead forty years and you find the same connections being made for another Rick in Blade Runner (1982). Deckard has a piano in his apartment and the replicant Rachel takes down her hair, and plays it, in an atmospheric, tender moment. Can she be really feeling emotions, unlocked by the music, and the memories? The question of what it means to feel, and to be human, is encapsulated within her playing.

Solving the question of whether someone has a soul or not via a piano is not unique to Blade Runner; you’ll also find it in lots of supernatural films, where it’s shorthand for generally being, on some level, a sensitive guy. There are many versions of The Phantom Of The Opera, but perhaps my favorite is the 1925 version in which Lon Chaney’s rapt playing of the organ is interrupted by Mary Philbin, who unmasks him and reveals his hideous face.

The reveal is accompanied by a jarring, discordant chord on the organ, which would have been provided by the real life organ player in the cinema back at the time of release, making it really loud and shocking. Can she overcome his drawbacks because of his artistic sensibilities? Well, let’s just say this isn’t a happy ending, for the Phantom, at least.

Hideousness is less of a problem for vampire Edward Cullen, so his gentle piano playing is really all about whether Bella Swan is safe in his skilled hands in Twilight (2008). This time around the answer is a resounding yes. A beautiful score helps to reinforce the suggestion that Edward really does have a soul, even if he doesn’t think so himself, in a nicely handled sequence that establishes their emotional connection. Also, his ability to play the piano so well helps to give us the feeling that he is, in fact, an old soul. His immortality has given him the time he needs to endlessly practise to the point of virtuosity.

One of the best uses of the learning of the piano as a way to illustrate immortality must belong to Groundhog Day (1993). Bill Murray takes a lesson every day while he is trapped interminably in the town of Punxsutawney, and he becomes an expert. But, more than that, he learns how to admit truly to his feelings, and to express them.

Having said that, one of the greatest things about Groundhog Day is how it delivers this message without melodrama. A different film might choose to go down the route of showing Murray having a tear-jerking epiphany over the keys; instead he chews gum and looks completely unbothered by his new skill. It’s up to the townsfolk and the audience to be delighted for him, so we are.

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Taken to extremes, the piano can be the only outlet for a repressed character, and our only sign that we are dealing with deep emotions. Ada in Jane Campion’s The Piano(1993) is a perfect example of this. She does not speak, and has a physical connection to the piano that means she is in permanent emotional pain when it is commandeered by Harvey Keitel’s character, who also finds a means of expression through her music. Such a struggle could only end badly, and it is the piano itself as an object that represents this at the film’s powerful conclusion.

Piano Players Are Sexy. Or Repressed. Or Both.

I defy you to think of sexy piano playing scenes and not conjure up Jeff Bridges at the keyboard while Michelle Pfeiffer sings “Makin’ Whoopee” in The Fabulous Baker Boys(1989). Not only is this the film for you if you’re a piano fan, but it was also iconic enough to be spoofed in Hot Shots! (1991) only two years later. Basically, it immediately entered into filmic language, and you can also see its trickle-down effect in other films such as Pretty Woman (1990) in which Richard Gere went all the way with poor Julia Roberts propped uncomfortably upon the keys – an act that was supposedly meant to make us see him as a sensitive guy (see above) although it never quite worked for me.

But sexual tension over the piano was not invented by The Fabulous Baker Boys. The 1939 movie Intermezzo is a great example of sizzling screen tension that tickles the ivories, although it leaves a lot more to the imagination. Leslie Howard is a concert violinist who falls in love with his daughter’s piano teacher, played by Ingrid Bergman in her first US screen role. It made her a star, and it’s not surprising; she does a great job of putting her passion for both the piano and her love interest across.

You have to love those scenes in movies where the hero and the leading lady sit together at the piano and play a little duet, giving us a chance to enjoy their chemistry and see how they are suited to each other (Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride has a nice example, and there are variations of it in many Jane Austen adaptations).

Park Chan-Wook’s brilliant Stoker (2013) develops an extra twist by using the duet scene to establish the repressed sexual tension India is feeling for her Uncle Charlie, and her struggle to reject his dominance over her. The camera snakes around the piano, showing her crossed legs, her splayed hands, and the way his body moves around hers. It’s a great moment.

War is Hell on Pianos

Spare a thought for the piano during wartime. Directors love to juxtapose the sound of serene music with the exploding of bombs, and if they can blow a musical instrument up in the process, all the better. The English Patient (1996) shows us Juliette Binoche happily playing Bach on a piano that is already missing a leg or two; she is interrupted by the bomb disposal expert with whom she falls in love. He tells her that pianos are often used by the Germans as a place to leave mines, establishing just what an uncultured bunch they are.

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A piano in a similarly dilapidated state is in the opening scene of Andrez Wajda’s Kanal (1956), a gripping film about the 1944 Warsaw uprising. The characters we will follow in their bid to escape Warsaw file past the piano, and the camera. Only one character stops to attempt to play a tune – the pianist here is played so well by Vladek Sheybal, a brilliant actor who later became better known as Kronsteen, the chess Grandmaster in From Russia With Love (1963). Neither of these pianos are faring well, but they can still produce a note or two; it seems all hope is not yet gone in times of war as long as music, however out of tune, can still be made.

Sometimes this need for our essential humanity to survive through a medium such as music becomes the focus of an entire film, such as The Pianist (2002), or it’s simply a counterpoint to the horrors going on around us, such as the troubling scene in Fury (2014) where the young recruit finds a soulmate in a German girl who sings while he plays – but he is still a soldier, and she is still a civilian. Sometimes music can’t save us, although it can distract us for a few pleasant moments before its time to get back to business. The piano probably won’t survive.

It’s Just Fun

But behind all of these meanings lurks the one simple fact that playing the piano is a lot of fun to do, and it’s also really enjoyable to watch. In many films it makes an appearance because it makes us smile, and there’s no better example of that than Big (1988) where the keyboard stretches across the floor, and to play it is to dance. Can anyone watch that scene without smiling?

One of my favorite Sherman Brothers songs can be found in Disney’s The Aristocats (1970); “Scales and Arpeggios” shows us the three kittens singing and playing together, and generally annoying each other and getting into trouble at the same time. It manages to show off the expected refinement, and yet also the entertaining nature, of the piano and the family. Green Card (1990) has Gerard Depardieu moving from comedy to drama in one musical moment at a dinner party.

Crossing the line between posh and bawdy via the piano also happens in The Philadelphia Story (1940). The youngest daughter of the rich household enters the room in ballet shoes, speaks in French, and then sits down at the piano and bashes out a bawdy song titled “Lydia The Tattooed Lady.”

It’s possible to get sidetracked by Lydia The Tattooed Lady.” It’s a song with real filmic history, having been sung by notables such as Robin Williams in The Fisher King (1991), Kermit the Frog in a 1976 episode of The Muppet Show, and in other places such as M.A.S.H and even Breaking Bad (as a ringtone). However, it really belongs to Groucho Marx, who sang it first in At The Circus (1939). And the Marx Brothers had a few great piano playing songs of their own throughout their careers which are worth watching just for the joy of it.

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To finish up, why not seek out Judy Garland’s piano playing in the 1942 film Me And My Gal? She’s thinking about setting up a stage act with none other than Gene Kelly (in his first film role) and so she plays a tune, and it develops in the way that only musicals can into a full-blown orchestral number. Musicals are all about the suspension of disbelief, and the audience willingly goes along for the ride, so really it makes very little difference to us that Garland obviously can’t actually play the piano (or if she could, she’s doing a really bad job of miming it here). She flaps her hands about, but it doesn’t matter because she sings so well, and then gets up and takes a spin around the dance floor with Kelly, and we are properly entertained.

As cinema developed over the years, so too did the desire to make everything look at real as possible, and so actors began to learn how to play the piano if the part called for it to eliminate the need to film only from certain angles, or to use a hand double. But I love Garland’s miming as much as I like Adrien Brody’s commitment to many months of training for his role in The Pianist, or Jamie Foxx’s ability to play already that became one of the reasons why he was cast the film Ray (2004). No matter how you film it, a piano scene can make a strong point about the mental state of a character, or a situation, or it can just be plain fun.