Intentionally or not, Scott Hicks' documentary Glass: A Portrait Of Philip In Twelve Parts makes a good companion piece to his breakthrough film, Shine, right down to the way that Philip Glass even looks a little like Shine star Geoffrey Rush. But where Shine was about a musician battling mental illness and an up-and-down career in order to share his interpretation of the classics, Glass is about a down-to-Earth, commercially successful composer who made his reputation by creating a signature sound that once seemed avant-garde, but has now been absorbed into the mainstream. Also, where Shine was visually beautiful and aspired to the poetic, Glass looks flat and feels scattered.
Those looking for a cohesive documentary portrait of Philip Glass will have to hope that some other filmmaker comes along someday and makes better use of Hicks' footage. In the meantime, Glass should suit those willing to accept a fitfully insightful look at one of the most intriguing figures in late-20th-century American culture. Love or hate Glass' music and its curious pervasiveness, his story says a lot about the shifting fortunes of the New York art world in the '70s and '80s. At the end of the '60s, Glass was just another highbrow hippie, exploring symphonic repetition by taking advantage of the psychedelic set's tolerance for drone. By the mid-'70s, he was mounting an opera at the Met, and becoming well-known enough that a New Yorker cartoonist could build a gag around him. A decade later, he was providing music for movies and commercials.
And yet while Glass reveals him as a low-key, thoughtful, and largely unpretentious fellow, Hicks' decision to divide the documentary into 12 vignettes keeps him from grasping the full scope of Glass' life and career. Hicks devotes segments to fairly straightforward, mundane studies of Glass' family, his spiritual explorations, and his workaholic ways, but the actual biography only comes through sporadically, without much critical or historical context. Hicks might think he's mirroring Glass' own working methods, which borrow from Allen Ginsberg's philosophy of "first thought, best thought," but Glass' end results tend to be more polished. As fascinating as Glass often is, it's simultaneously too conventional and not conventional enough.