When it comes to music, it sometimes seems like creating art and something that’s successful in the mainstream are closely interlinked. Someone who has struggled with the divide between success and his own artistic expression is Chilly Gonzales. He has strayed from what the mainstream wants, yet yearned for success. Diving into his past and his mind, the documentary Shut Up and Play the Piano was released last Thursday, September 20th. Earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival I was able to meet and talk to the director of the documentary Philipp Jedicke.

Although the film features a painful part about Chilly Gonzales mocking journalists for their silly questions, basically asking the same things over and over again – a ‘do your research’ type of criticism – it was during an interview that Jedicke and Gonzales first met. It was in 2014, when Gonzales put out Re-Introduction Etudes. ‘Well, I must have done something right. We had a twenty minute slot, but we talked for over an hour. There were a lot of links that connected us,’ says Jedicke. He had lived in Canada, which is the country where Gonzales is from. Jedicke had lived in France and Paris had been a place Gonzales called his home for quite some time. They talked about cultural differences between Germany and France, between Canada and Europe. The whole time, spurred on by their deep thoughts, Jedicke felt the urge to ask if he could make a documentary about Chilly Gonzales. They talked and talked, until they stood outside unlocking their bikes and finally he asked him. It was a spontaneous ‘go ahead’ then and there at the bike rack that started the project.

Early beginnings in Berlin

The film combines archive footage with new bits exploring the identity of Chilly Gonzales. The film focusses on his early beginnings in Berlin, starting to find himself with other artists like Peaches and Feist. ‘What I found interesting from the start was the Canadian gang in Berlin. He was on tour in Europe with both Peaches and Feist. All of them became successful artists and each of them is doing their own thing now, completely different from one another, but their flat share in Berlin was a sort of breeding ground,’ says Jedicke. Collaboration is inextricable from the creative progress for him. ‘He tried to be part of the mainstream at first, with a major label and something sounding slightly like grunge collage rock, and it was a complete flop. Then he was like ‘Well fuck this, I’m going to make the Shit with Peaches,’ and that’s when they met to make experimental voice punk in Berlin together. Sometimes you have to go to back to zero to get this creative. You have to make mistakes.

The Struggle of Striving for Success

Aside from his beginnings in Berlin, another large focus of the documentary is a struggle at the core of Gonzales’ being: ‘He’s driven by the pressure to be successful. Ambition is his absolute motor and it’s because of his father who’s a big business-man and his brother who scores well-known films in Hollywood. He’s grown up with a desire to become successful, which he can’t let go of anymore. He takes it more relaxed these days, but it’s still a pressure he puts on himself.’

In the film, Chilly Gonzales and his brother Christophe Beck are portrayed as two sides of a coin. One represents the way of professionalism and the other the way of artistic expression. Sometimes it comes across like the film is treating his brother condescendingly, as if he is not enough of an artist. Jedicke sets the record straight: ‘His brother became a professional quite early on, he found a certain formula for success and followed it. He is innovative, he’s also an artist, but he also wanted to make money off of it and there’s nothing wrong with that. Gonzales went for the more radical, more artistic side of things. Playing in bars, not knowing how to pay for his own lunch. It was important for him to go through that.’ However, does it always have to be one way or the other?

Of course, you can make money and be an artist at the same time. In the end, Gonzales is the living and breathing example for it. In Beans he says ‘Made a decision to be a paid musician, I would play in the system.’ That is what he’s doing.

The careers of his brother and him have converged over the years. While his brother isn’t rejecting to compose things that are independent of the big movie business, Gonzales does things that are commercially successful. Things he wouldn’t have done as the artist he was in the beginning, but he recognises that it’s good and important to do now. In the end, his key to success is hard work and dedication. “He once said the sentence ‘I’m not an artist, I just work the hardest’ and it’s his ethos. He isn’t waiting to be kissed by a muse, he works his butt off. Every day he composes, he practises the piano,” Jedicke explains.

‘He’s more like an athlete, like a marathon runner, how he goes about creating his art. He doesn’t approve of the idea of being a musical genius, the artist as an ethereal being, with a godly connection, it’s a ridiculous concept to him, that’s why he always makes fun of it.’

Yet somehow there was a time in his life when he wanted to be a genius, desperately. It’s a pivotal point for Jedicke: ‘The transition between Paris and Berlin, when he’s on stage, more and more becoming a performance artist, super sweaty and dancing around, basically looking like a clown to get the attention like ‘Here I am, the musical genius’. Trying to prove something! But he needed this to be able to make the radical cut to go back to solo piano, to go back to his roots. That’s how he found back to himself. There was a struggle between two concepts and then he lifted himself to the next level – uniting both concepts. He’s someone who doesn’t want to go left or right, he wants to do everything at the same time. He’s the living example that it works.

To see more of the music and genius that is of Chilly Gonzales please experience this film, Shut Up and Play the Piano is out in cinemas now. And he’s also going on a tour soon.