For director Bernard Rose, making a film about 19th Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini would be pointless without a master violinist to play the part.
The producers of “The Devil’s Violinist” found such a musician in the young, handsome German violinist David Garrett. After securing Garrett for the role, they pitched the project to Rose, the British director who wrote and directed “Immortal Beloved,” the inspirational, Gary Oldman-starring 1994 biopic about Ludwig van Beethoven.
Rose, who attended the 2013 Louisiana International Film Festival, which screened his film “Boxing Day,” returns to the festival this year with “The Devil’s Violinist.”
Garrett characterizes Paganini as the first rock star. In addition to on-stage charisma that left female fans swooning, his violin technique dazzled concertgoers.
“Paganini was the first musician to earn a great deal of money from touring rather than from a patron or concert subscriptions,” Rose said. “He was a sensation. People rioted when they saw him; girls fainted.”
Playing Paganini, all Garrett had to do was act naturally.
“David is living the life of a touring virtuoso,” Rose said. “He’s on stage doing that all the time.”
It helped, too, that Garrett looks the part of a matinee idol.
“Probably in the world today, there are only 15 people who can play like Paganini,” Rose said. “Of those 15, probably only five of them are the right age and gender. And how many of those five in the right group look like leading men? Now you’re down to David. That’s it.”
The late German actor Klaus Kinski starred in and directed a 1989 Paganini biopic.
“Kinski looks fantastic in this sort of crazed, cadaverous way,” Rose said. “But in the scenes where he’s supposed to be on stage playing, the film falls apart. Kinski doesn’t even hold the violin correctly. It’s so far out of the bounds from somebody who’s actually playing that you can’t accept it. It spoils the film.”
With Garrett in the role, executing the devilishly difficult pieces that made Paganini a legend in his own lifetime, there’s no such stumbling block in “The Devil’s Violinist.”
“It’s like you couldn’t make a dance film if you didn’t have Fred Astaire,” Rose explained. “Because there isn’t much to shoot when it comes to the thing that you’re actually going for. Otherwise it’s just someone pretending to play the violin. But you can’t mime doing the stuff that Paganini did. The double stops, harmonics and the extravagant stuff. It’s complicated. You couldn’t teach an actor to do it.”
Rose sees a quite contemporary story in Paganini’s life of extreme success and personal excess.
“People thought that his playing was so extraordinary that he must have sold his soul to the devil,” the director said. “That story became a sort of rock ’n’ roll fable.
“And the story of the film is that the devil is his tour manager, which is pretty much what happens with rock stars to this day. Paganini gets everything he’s ever wanted — the success, the women. Of course, it’s not enough. That’s always the story of the rock star.”
Jared Harris (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” “Mad Men,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) portrays Paganini’s exploitive manager, Urbani.
“If you watch VH1’s ‘Behind the Music’ series, all those bands have exactly the same story,” Rose said. “They get big and then their managers steal all their money. It’s shocking how similar everybody’s career path is in that way.”