Unabashedly middlebrow, Patrick McGrady’s Wagner & Me follows Stephen Fry around Europe on a Wagnerian sightseeing tour in the hopes of comprehending by way of milieu the composer’s infamous anti-Semitism and eventual co-opting by Nazi culture. Fry, with his typical everyman élan, explicitly narrates the purpose of the journey and the subsequent progress he makes, often pausing for colloquial, confessional asides. “I’m Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust,” he says early on. “I have to be sure I’m doing the right thing [by admiring Wagner].” This hesitation, however, doesn’t forestall his admirable fanboyishness; he becomes giddy at the sight of Valkyries suiting up backstage, and trades gushy insights about the staggeringly influential Tristan chord with Germany’s musical elite. (One such sequence ends with Fry proclaiming, “I played the Tristan chord on Wagner’s piano! I have to pinch myself!”)
It’s by now cliché that artists’ idiosyncratic personalities tend to do their work few favors, and the documentary’s tidy alternating between “good Wagner” (with scenes that explicate his musical gifts) and “bad Wagner” (with visits to haunted locations such as the site of the Nuremberg rally) quickly becomes predictable. But in bits and pieces, the biographical criticism offered is useful to non-adherents who aren’t aware of Wagner’s difficult life or the caprices of his era; by demystifying the man behind the music, Fry reduces easy readings of Wagner as a “Nazi composer” to uninformed gossip. A few opportunities are undoubtedly lost in the decision to withhold discussion of the composer’s philosophical tendencies; a brief mention of his affection for Schopenhauer’s double-edged theories, for example, may have been illuminating. But Fry’s myriad defenses of Wagner likably display the humanity he wishes to find in his operatic idol; at one point, he dreams of going backward in time and writing the composer a letter to warn him off of vocalizing his anti-Semitic views.
An odd arrhythmia afflicts the film’s middle, wherein Fry moves through Germany and few overwhelmingly negative points are made about his subject; one almost suspects that a respectful cushion of adulation was required for a late scene wherein Fry meets one of Wagner’s living descendents. Still, even when Wagner & Me seems uneven as an art historical study, it’s fairly successful as a travelogue. While McGrady’s sharp, vibrant photography lavishes tourist-y love on Russian and German opera houses and landmarks, Fry’s enviably loud corduroy pants offer splashes of artificial color. Even with his wardrobe Fry embraces his status as an interloper in this environment, and it finally frees him from the duty of deciding anything about Wagner other than that he could write one hell of a score. It’s not for Fry, or for us, to determine anything further.