Film note: An affectionate portrait of composer Philip Glass


The music of Philip Glass is generally based on simple rippling lines repeated over and over, with slow metamorphoses. In the process the ideas, which are not necessarily interesting to begin with, do not become any more interesting. The result is indubitably hypnotic. Time magazine has called Glass the world’s greatest living composer, and he has legions of admirers, many drawn from the ranks of rock fans. (Others feel that his fans’ idea of a good time is a stupor, and they could get higher cheaper at the local bar.) – Jan Swafford, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music

Appropriately for someone who describes himself as a “Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist,” Philip Glass is serenely untroubled by the criticism that’s been shoveled upon his music since he emerged from the New York arts scene in the late 1960s. In Scott Hicks’s documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts—receiving its local premiere on September 19 at the Walker Art Center—the composer is seen laughing at his negative press. “I have a very strong, solid hate faction,” he says, “and I find that reassuring.” The film suggests that this unshakable confidence is the foundation of Glass’s life and work. Glass likens his creative inspiration to a river flowing underground, and it’s one he continues to tap at an astonishing rate, relentlessly churning out everything from operas to études.

Hicks’s Glass is of a piece with the late Sydney Pollack’s final film, Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005). Each film is an affectionate tribute paid by a major filmmaker to a major artist in another field, thus highlighting universal elements of the creative process. Artist Julian Schnabel features in Pollack’s Gehry film, and one of the most illuminating sections of Hicks’s film has Glass in conversation with his longtime friend Chuck Close, the painter. Close points to a portrait in which a “stupid, unexpressive dot” becomes expressive when repeated in patterns, and notes that Glass’s music achieves its effect by similar means.

Pollack and Hicks also feature as characters in their own films. Unlike Pollack, Hicks thankfully stays behind the camera and spares us from watching chummy onscreen banter, but Glass (presumably with Hicks’s encouragement) ignores the fourth wall and freely converses with the offscreen director as Glass goes about his business. This lends a welcome intimacy to an otherwise straightforward production that you wouldn’t be surprised to find interrupted for a PBS fundraising pitch.

A Portrait of Philip will not change the minds of any of Glass’s detractors. The glimpses of Glass’s life are a treat for his fans—myself included—but the film contains no particularly novel insights about a man who has never been media-shy. Nor is it necessarily a good place for the uninitiated to begin approaching Glass: though the film walks through Glass’s life, its approach assumes a basic understanding of his music and its significance.

Perhaps tellingly, at the emotional center of the film is not Glass himself but his fourth wife Holly Critchlow, who is seen raising two young children with Glass. Critchlow movingly describes the challenges of being close to a man hounded by the Muse; at the film’s end, she makes a surprising revelation that casts a new light over the entire portrait.

Bach needed to work at a furious pace to support his family. Glass’s assiduousness may be destroying his—but in the sage words of Tilly and the Wall, “sometimes you just can’t hold back the river.”