Janine Hosking’s documentary The Eulogy had its world premiere screening during the recent Melbourne International Film Festival. Focusing on the life of Australian concert pianist Geoffrey Tozer, whose career began as a prodigiously gifted wunderkind, it had three sold-out screenings. As so often happens, Tozer’s career in adulthood never quite fulfilled the promise of his early celebrity. A Churchill Fellowship at the age of 14 saw Tozer, accompanied by his mother Verna, seek fame and fortune in London where he quickly became the youngest-ever semi-finalist at the celebrated Leeds International Piano Competition. Later at age 25, Tozer received Third Prize in the career-making Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. Yet neither fame nor fortune were to ensue as Tozer’s mid-life performing career lost its focus. International performance opportunities dried up and Tozer soon found himself impoverished and languishing teaching piano in a local school back in Canberra.
For many the initial interest of the film lies in the presence of former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating who, especially during his time as Treasurer, was a great supporter of Tozer. Keating’s role in the film is to re-enact the eulogy he delivered at Tozer’s funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 2009. Keatingnot only laments the too-early loss of this great pianistic talent, but also, and with typically Keating-esque vitriol, fires undiluted barbs at the artistic institutions who failed to support and nurture Tozer.
Yet Tozer’s contribution to Australian music was not insignificant. With the sustained assistance, awarded somewhat controversially at the time, of the ill-fated so-called “Keating Fellowships”, Tozer made numerous acclaimed recordings of the music of Nikolai Medtner with prestige English label Chandos garnering a Grammy Award nomination along the way. How many Australian Classical musicians can claim that distinction?
The film is held together by the enquiring mind of one of Australia’s greatest musical educators, conductor Richard Gill who seeks to unravel the whys and wherefores of Tozer’s life and career. Notably few professional musicians were seemingly willing to commit their thoughts to the film – more is the pity. Various arts administrators, friends, and in one instance partner, offer their view-points and occasionally there are snippets of Tozer himself being interviewed at various stages of his career.
The film would have benefitted greatly from featuring Tozer in performance more, whether as solo recitalist, chamber musician or concerto soloist, for he surely was one of our greats, and there must be substantial archival footage. It also would have been worthwhile to encounter more of Tozer’s own compositions, for his astounding musicianship extended well beyond mere digital viruosity. And curiously, throughout the film there is an inexplicably persistent focus on a group of young Sydney music students who unsurprisingly have little to contribute to the film’s narrative arc.
Ultimately there are no easy answers to explain the lack of success for Tozer later in life as he was not entirely without support. And Australia’s infamous tall-poppy syndrome is an all-too-easy explanation for Tozer’s life was indeed a troubled and complicated one. In relation to some of his reported pronouncements, some have even called him ungrateful. What is beyond question though, is that losing Tozer at age 54 was a profound loss for Australian music. Thankfully however, Tozer’s recorded legacy is substantial, and his championship of the music of Medtner, which until Tozer came along was little known beyond Medtner’s native Russia, was significant.
The Eulogy is a fascinating case study revealing the too little understood reality that even a towering natural talent – even one supported by decades of sustained hard work and dedication – does not in itself ensure a successful career, let alone fame, in the performing arts. The stars must align in ways that will often remain elusive.
Based on the interest generated by The Eulogy at MIFF, Hosking’s film deserves a general cinema release, even if only in our dwindling supply of so-called art-house cinemas. If not, then watch out for it on free-to-air television.