The Grand Suggests: "Wagner & Me"

Actor Stephen Fry is torn in his super-fandom of Richard Wagner

By Zach Powers on March 11, 2013

If I had a penny for every time I felt guilty for supporting artists whose work I know to be prejudice or socially harmful I'd have more than enough cash to pay off my student loans.

I'm talking about Jay-Z who, pre-Beyonce and Blue Ivy, used to be one of the biggest misogynists in American pop culture. Yet I'm a huge golden-era Hova fan - but not a fan, of course, of his love of the word bitch and his repeated boasting of convincing women to take ecstasy.

I'm talking aboutJudd Apatow whose catalogue includes films such as Knocked Up and Superbad that can't go 10 minutes without gay bashing. Yet I still watched those movies and found them to be reasonably funny - though I cringed at every joke marginalizing some of my good friends and family.

I'm talking about Walt Disney and his company who for nearly a century have rarely produced films that weren't racist, sexist, homophobic or affirming of unhealthy and unrealistic body images. But even still I recently watched Finding Nemo with my niece - because, I reasoned with myself, although it's Disney, this particular film isn't harmful.

I've found it's tough to find complete peace of mind while supporting any of these artists, yet nonetheless I've found a mental space where I can still enjoy them. And while this sort of conscious-fan-conundrum is not a subject that goes without being discussed by bloggers and critics, it is rarely individually owned as boldly as it is by actor and comedian Stephen Fry in his new documentary, Wagner & Me.

The film follows Fry as he travels throughout Europe exploring the life and music of Richard Wagner. Fry is a Wagner fanatic, and for good reason as the late German composer andtheater director is largely considered one of the most influential musicians of the 19th century. Remembered by music historians for his complex textures and rich harmonies and orchestration, Wagner pushed the limits of classical music composition and as his stage productions are believed to have heavily influenced the pioneers of modern musical theater. 

That's the undeniable positive side of Wagner's legacy. The undeniably negative side is that Wagner was publicly and unapologetically anti-Semitic, an ideology he shared both through personal writing and his musical productions.

Largely because of these views Adolf Hitler - who rose to power roughly 50 years after Wagner's death - was a huge admirer of his. Many times Hitler used Wagner's music at Nazi events and he believed that he and Wagner shared the same vision for the German nation. 

Wagner's dark side leaves Fry, both a Jew and classical music fanatic, torn in his super-fandom of Wagner. In Wagner & Me Fry explores this conflict while visiting the sites of Wagner's greatest musical triumphs and discussing it with historians, musicians and family members. 

I'm looking forward to watching the film this Tuesday, March 19 to see what I can learn from Fry and his journey. I wonder how my perspective of the art and prejudice of Jay-Z, Apatow or even Walt Disney might possibly change if I were to explore their histories as vigorously as Fry has so openly explored Wagner.

THE GRAND CINEMA, WAGNER & ME, TUESDAY, MARCH 19, 2:30 AND 6:35 P.M., $4.50-$9, 606 S. FAWCETT AVE., TACOMA, 253.593.4474