A version of this review appeared in The Age, July 19, 2012.
The late British composer Havergal Brian may not be a household name, but for a small circle of admirers his music remains an all-consuming passion. For decades, the Brisbane broadcaster Gary Thorpe has dreamt of the first Australian performance of Brian's gargantuan Gothic Symphony, a work so complex it has its own entry in the Guinness Book of Records. It's a Herculean task that calls for an 150-strong orchestra, four brass bands and roughly six hundred choristers.
Still, there's something irresistible about the lure of the Gothic. Over the course of this film, its producer Veronica Fury eventually becomes as committed to the task as Thorpe himself, and almost as despondent about the chances of success.
A classically-trained musician in his own right, the director Randall Wood has condensed seven years of effort into a suspenseful, clearly-focused documentary about the trials and tribulations of putting on a show. The prevailing tone is gently comic, as Thorpe and his team struggle with the mundane logistical challenges posed by Brian's grand Romantic vision. Meanwhile, we're granted the rare privilege of sitting in on meetings of Britain's Havergal Brian society, the members of which prove every bit as winningly eccentric as one could hope.
As if worried that his subject might prove too esoteric for the general public, Wood goes overboard with fanciful re-enactments that portray Brian as a cartoon madman out of Edgar Allen Poe, scribbling away at his desk amid thunder and lightning. But the real hero is Thorpe, who registers as the most touchingly devoted fan since the cinema professor played by Michael Stuhlberg in Hugo – a comparably inspiring film about the fight to ensure that neglected art is appreciated anew.