Ivory Tower is an existential sports comedy, a story of two brothers and their unhealthy rivalry over both the chessboard and a woman. Hershell is a chess purist, the prodigal son, an artist. Thadeus grew to be a disciplained, fierce and ruthless competitor, commercially exploiting his chess notoriety.
At the death of their father, Hershell spent four nomadic years travelling Europe in quixotic pursuit of his “Jazz Chess” theory: chess for chess’ sake, reduced to pure movement without the element of competition – and best played alone. There is no winner, no loser, only beautiful positions.
The film starts at his return home to Toronto, where he finds that his brother Thadeus has become the Canadian Chess Champion. Successful but arrogant, Thadeus supports their sick mother, has a rising media profile and is engaged to marry Marsha, Hershell’s former sweetheart for whom he still longs.
Hershell finds that Jazz Chess doesn’t attract the acclaim or investors he was hoping for; even kids playing chess in the park don’t seem to understand “chess without checkmate”. Discouraged by his prospects, and wanting Marsha back, Hershell finds himself drawn toward the competitive addiction from which he had run. He decides to challenge Thadeus for the upcoming Canadian Chess Championship.
The gauntlet is thrown down and the two brothers undergo rigorous training, each according to their vision if the game. During the final match, Thadeus takes the lead but is flustered by Hershell’s Zen- like demeanor. Thadeus blunders out of frustration and sets himself up for certain defeat at the hands of his brother in just one deadly move.
Whose trophy will Marsha be?
Will Hershell use his Jazz Chess principles and prove that art for art’s sake can triumph?… “it’s not about winning but about the beauty of each move” or will Thadeus’ killer instinct prevail?… “chess is war”.
DIRECTOR ADAM TRAYNOR’S NOTE
Ivory Tower is a tour de force, a series set pieces performed with simple gestures in modulating forms. It’s a Rocky-inspired sports parody; a Sirkean melodrama; a nouvelle Nouvelle-vague Free Jazz riff; a music video; a YouTube bricolage; a silent era pastiche; a commercial.
In the end, Ivory Tower’s modal composition is the closest we’ll get to an explanation of Hershell’s esoteric vision for “Jazz Chess”. This is why (forgive the cliché) I like to think of Ivory Tower as several movies in one. So much so that I gave it some additional titles.
The brilliant nomad pitted against forms of progress which seem inevitable to those whose lives are shaped by them. A feel-good coming-of-age story.
Mutual Zugzwang: The Brothers Graves
Hershell and Thaddeus Graves are polar opposites-and thus they’re the same. Hershell the self-deluding idealist and Thaddeus the ruthless competitor. They’ve switched sides in the middle of the game once before-will they do it again?
White Queen Is Drowning
Marsha’s not so much caught between two bro- thers as between the future Mrs. Marsha Graves and Marsha Thirteen, performer of the ingenious Violinstallation.
And of course, Ivory Tower: An electro-piano, silent opera about chess.
And the other Ivory Tower, the album, a sweeping cinematic musical universe by Chilly Gonzales and Boys Noize, weaving its way through the pastiche of forms in which the characters are posited.
The work of Céline Sciamma gave this film a backbone which allowed this improvised multiplicity of forms to thrive. The will of Chilly Gonzales to bring this cast of musicians-personas and this crew together, on a gruelling two-and-a-half week shoot and a shoestring budget, proves what Hershell’s blind passion mixed with Thaddeus’ ambition can produce: a towering achievement.
Depending on who you ask, the question “who is Gonzales?” will elicit various answers. Other than “je ne sais pas”, there is “prankster rapper from the Berlin underground”, “workaholic Grammy- nominated arranger/producer”, “melancholic piano virtuoso”, “Guinness World Record holder” and now… actor, writer and producer of the feature film Ivory Tower.
It’s been a short ride, beginning with electro-hipster classic album Gonzales Über Alles in 2000. Since then, every project brings a new style, image and media strategy. What never changes is Gonzales’ musical genius and showmanship.
Gonzales left Canada for Berlin in 1998. Those hipster years saw Gonzo being asked to remix Daft Punk and Björk, though he opted to “remake” them instead. He pronounced himself President of the Berlin Underground in a legendary Press Conference, and people thought he was joking. He was invited to David Bowie’s Meltdown Festival in London. But it wasn’t enough. So on to Paris, where he lazily collaborated with his former touring sidekick Feist on what would be her first album “Let It Die” which eventually sold half a million copies.
In 2004, Solo Piano (Universal Jazz) became Gonzales’ best selling album. It introduced Gonzo to an audience of real human beings who actually buy music sometimes. The piano pieces were used in documentaries, in films by François Ozon, Patrice Leconte, Pierre Jolivet.
Gonzales had finally been embraced by hipsters and humans alike. What could this dysfunctional megalomaniac do after the transition from outside to insider? He started 2008 by releasing “Soft Power” – the misunderstood masterpiece. Gonzo then accepted several of the more interesting offers that came his way in the wake of this new found fame. Offers to incarnate Serge Gainsbourg, to play his music for the soundtrack – and his hands for the screen – in the much anticipated first feature film of renowned comic book artist Johann Sfar, offers to co-write a book of music inspired by recipes inspired by music, with Pierre Gagnière, the 3 star chef and owner of London’s Sketch and Paris’ Le restaurant de Pierre Gagnaire. And still found time to write and produce tracks for new albums by Mocky, Peaches, Jamie Lidell, Tiga and the album that garnered him a producer Grammy nomination, Feist’s million selling The Reminder.
But to fully satisfy the insatiable ambition of Gonzales, only one thing was left to do and he did it: May 16–18, 2009 Gonzales broke the Guinness World Record for the longest solo concert… by playing TWENTY-SEVEN hours of piano, over
200 different songs, in a marathon concert at film director Claude Lelouch’s Ciné 13 Theatre in Paris. A record 85 000 people from all over the world tuned in to the live webcast, that became the days n° 2 “twitter trend”.