This weekend I succumbed to meme-y marketing and headed to the theater to see the surprise hit horror comedy M3gan. I generally enjoyed it – the jokes are funny, the jump scares effective, the robot-centric storyline a pretty clever addition to our fresh new wave of artificial intelligence angst. It’s not the goriest or scariest flick – the streams of blood had to remain PG-13 – but the steadily rising suspense and references to horror classics do their job well. But for me, the most terrifying aspect of the film doesn’t come from what one might expect: the offscreen murders, M3gan’s deranged humanoid face, the pressures of capitalism. It actually stems from a deceptively insignificant 10-second scene set roughly halfway through the film where the titular bot walks to the house piano. You may remember seeing it in the trailer:
To be clear, I don’t find this scene all that terrifying because of the piano melody itself (in the movie, a solid instrumental cover of Martika’s 1989 #1 hit “Toy Soldiers”) or because of the overall menace of the moment. a turning point in the development of M3gan. Instead, I want to step back and focus on something seemingly more innocuous: hands.
When I look at these (mostly regular) robotic killer doll hands, it’s because I’m in awe of the fact that they have a pretty stable hand position at the piano. As a former longtime piano student, this is what I notice again and again in every live concert, every visual recording or every keystroke performance: the structure of the hand position. My fellow pianists may remember all the lessons about how to cup your hand in a C to balance finger lengths, keep your knuckles bent and tight without straining your arms, keep your elbows level, and never allow that the joints buckle when you strike a new note, making sure to position yourself so that your hands are neither flat on the piano nor too high or too high. It’s about combining stiffness and dexterity to keep your technique sharp while allowing yourself to play loose. It’s certainly not easy. My own teachers made me do endless Czerny and Hanon exercises designed to teach good posture. So it’s not a lesson I’ve ever forgotten, and chances are if you were ever good in the ’88s, you haven’t forgotten either. Of course, this is also one of the many lessons internalized by M3gan’s AI
Well, that’s how you do it. Screenshot from YouTube/Universal Pictures
You might be thinking: so what? But what M3gan does there is anything but common in cinematic piano canon. In fact, in far too many films — some of which actually focus on actors playing the piano, unlike M3gan — the human piano players have horrible, just horrible, hand positions. As a viewer whose piano regimen has waned in recent years, but who still instinctively cups his hand up before hitting a different set of keys (on my laptop), this drives me insane. Yes, I realize that many actors are not trained, capable musicians. No, I’m not saying anything about the scene from Big. Yes, I read this trade publication profile on how a performer received crash course piano lessons in search of awards. No, I don’t think Bill Murray did a good job in Groundhog Day – that Rachmaninoff sounds so clumsy.
The thing is, good hand position is essential for even basic piano playing, forget Van Cliburn’s level. Firm, curved, even yet flexible fingers are what get the best possible sound out of any piano note or melody. However, if my movie is any indication, a killer robot puppet shows much better technique in a matter of seconds than many human characters do for entire movie running times.
Do not believe me? I put together an evidence folder. First, let’s check out another popular film, Call Me by Your Name, starring the otherwise talented Timothée Chalamet.
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That’s really bad form, my man. Those flat fingers! The constant up and down of the hands and arms, an unnecessary and unhelpful waste of physical energy! Those tight muscles show how tight they are! I find it hard to believe that a fictional character who supposedly spends so much time on his piano could be so sloppy with his fingerwork, but hey, I’m not an Oscar-nominated actor.
Moving on to another Oscar-nominated performance in another Best Picture nominee: Ryan Gosling in La La Land. His technique here isn’t the worst. I tend to give jazz pianists more leeway—think Art Tatum, the early 20th-century legend who, despite being visually impaired and largely self-taught, could swing the fastest, clearest, most incredible trills and tremolos without “proper” technique. However, Ryan Gosling is not Art Tatum. You can tell how rigid his hands are, how forced his key changes are, how awkward his momentary preparations for landing on chords are. I mean not to disparage the talented Mr. Gosling, who performs some impressive pieces in the film (as he learned on the job), but his amateurishness is brutally displayed. He’s not the only insulting jazz dude in cinemas lately – the way the piano playing in Pixar’s Soul has been animated isn’t great either. But that’s just the latest in a long history of sloppy piano performance in animated movies.
Another from the Academy files: the controversial Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Rami Malek’s transformation into the late Queen frontman was undeniably impressive, but it didn’t translate to hand position. Now I tend to give rock pianists a lot of leeway too; It’s hard to believe that Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Mercury themselves would have had the impact they had if bound by classic craft. Still, is that what wins you for best actor? All the props are due to get the training to play those immortal Mercury riffs all by yourself, but man, you really don’t have to force your hands to the backs of the keys like that. It’s not efficient or fast! The whole thing could have been a lot easier if you changed your chord hammer style just a little bit.
Lest you think this is a new trend, let me refer you to no less film than Casablanca. I hate doing the great singer Dooley Wilson like this: he wasn’t a pianist himself, and the keys you hear in the film are dubbed. But come on. He could have put a little more effort into the scenes where his playing hands are visible instead of banging his hands up and down the post. I’m not sure I disagree with the YouTube commenter who called this “the worst fingering in film history”.
I could go on. The disrespect shown to none other than Scott Joplin in his own 1977 biopic; the contradiction of positions in the film that dares to call itself The Piano. And of course I’ll be screaming out some cinematic piano moments with superb technique, from thematically appropriate films like Amadeus, Shine, The Pianist and La Leggenda del Pianista Sull’oceano. It’s not impossible! But this has been a problem for English language films for too long, and with the release of M3gan in January, we kick off 2023 with a bunch of respected actors being dubbed by an android. How are we supposed to keep AI out of the music industry when we can’t even pretend to trump it? I’m very concerned about how the already battered creative class will suffer from the AI-powered conveniences. I have less sympathy for the actors who don’t even bother to internalize elementary piano lessons. Form those hands, humanity, so the M3gans of the world don’t get you.