Stravinsky’s Dim Hollywood Years Conjured on DVD

Detail from the DVD jacket of 'Stravinsky in Hollywood,' the film by Marco Capalbo for C Major Entertainment
‘Stravinsky in Hollywood,’ jacket detail. The DVD dubs his rejected music into films for which they were intended.
(C Major Entertainment)

Stravinsky in Hollywood, Marco Capalbo (director, narrator). (C Major Entertainment, DVD)

By Richard S. Ginell

Igor Stravinsky lived in the Hollywood Hills a good deal of his life – first at 1260 N. Wetherly Drive, for over two decades, and then for a few more years down the street at 1218 N. Wetherly Drive. In all, he spent 28 years there, longer than in any other locale. Putting it in perspective, this amounts to almost as long as Schubert was alive. Yet this fascinating period, though extensively documented, is still not particularly well known when compared to Stravinsky’s early fame in Europe.

For Stravinsky, the Hollywood years were
Southern California stirred a creative rebirth for Stravinsky.

That’s why Marco Capalbo’s new film Stravinsky in Hollywood is so valuable, for in just 52 minutes, it manages to summarize how Stravinsky’s stay in Southern California prompted a rebirth of his creative energies even after being rejected by Hollywood itself.

The filmmaker does this with a combination of still photos, authentic black-and-white home movies of Stravinsky and his aide and creative catalyst Robert Craft, and tinted-color re-enactments by actors of Stravinsky at work, play and driving through the Mojave Desert.

The most provocative experiment that Capalbo attempts is to conjecture what would have happened had Stravinsky’s campaign to break into the film industry succeeded. First, he wipes the soundtracks of scenes from The Song of Bernadette], Jane Eyre, and The Commandos Strike at Dawn and then superimposes rejected music that Stravinsky wrote for these films using recycled versions from the Symphony in Three Movements, Ode, and Four Norwegian Moods, respectively.

Right away, you can see and hear why Stravinsky and Hollywood did not mix. His music overwhelms the action; calling attention to itself with its brilliance, invention, life, and rhythm, even upstaging the sonorous Orson Welles in a scene from Jane Eyre (synced to the second movement of Ode). It’s tempting to say that Stravinsky’s music was too good for its purpose.  More accurately, its clear-eyed abstractions did not speak the prevailing Central European post-Romantic language that film moguls – and audiences – were used to.

Yet Stravinsky’s attempt to penetrate Hollywood, as per the title, only applies to roughly the first third of this film. The rest deals with Stravinsky’s creative crisis as he neared his seventies, and how meeting the young Craft and observing the death of the composer’s cross-town rival Arnold Schoenberg steered him toward his final period, when he gradually embraced serialism. What goes unsaid as Stravinsky’s car ambles through the desert is how the austere, spare, dissonant music from this period often seems to reflect the parched landscape, with its strange shapes and isolation from the mainstream.

Robert Craft (
Robert Craft gives first-hand accounts.

Craft himself, now 90, is the only interviewee on camera, and he gives Capalbo some engaging first-hand stories about his contacts with both Stravinsky and Schoenberg; imagine the emotional dissonance, as it were, of visiting Schoenberg in Brentwood by day and sleeping over at the Stravinskys above the Sunset Strip by night. His role in Stravinsky’s last years is described as “controversial,” but we never find out exactly why.

In any case, by the time we reach the brief outline of Stravinsky’s final two years in New York City, the chiming, strikingly dour conclusion of his last major work, Requiem Canticles, reveals the long stylistic distance that the composer travelled over his Los Angeles years. The home in which he wrote this piece, 1218 N. Wetherly Drive, was listed recently online as being worth just over $5 million, described by Zillow as a “former celebrity Sunset Strip estate.” There is no indication as to who this “celebrity” was – which sums up the gap in awareness of Stravinsky’s last years that this fascinating film tries to fill.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.