10 iconic movie and TV piano performances that inspired me to start playing

Casablanca piano
(Image credit: FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

When you play the piano, something you very much start to notice is how many films and TV shows have pianos in them. Sometimes they play a central role - fun fact: apparently Tom & Jerry’s Cat Concerto inspired Lang Lang to take up the instrument - and sometimes they’re just a prop to show the main character being talented/whimsical, and nobody even plays them properly. 

But there are a few on-screen performances that go beyond ‘fun musical interlude’ and make for a moment that inspires generations of tinklers to get behind the keyboard.

These are the ones that did it for me: check them out, and get a new lease on your piano life.

1. Big 

Obviously. It’s unclear how many children first saw the potential of learning piano when Tom Hanks and that guy from the Sopranos tap-danced their way through Heart And Soul on a giant department-store keyboard, but it’s a performance with everything: a faltering start, a gathering crowd, and a triumphant, athletic finish (followed by an encore of Chopsticks).

If you can do La Campanella but you’ve never jumped on a floor-sized keyboard, are you really a piano player?

2. Interview With A Vampire

Pianos are the best vampire instrument, aren’t they? Refined but capable of sounding sinister; great whether you’re playing a delicate dirge or a great big booming fugue. It isn’t just a coincidence that no vampire has ever played the trumpet.

Lestat’s piano sonata - a slightly repurposed version of Haydn's Piano Sonata Number 59 - is perfect for the tragic villain of the film, dancing between elegiac, twinkly and sonorous like a dark reflection of the big man’s life.

It’s also great fun to play, with a couple of hands-crossed bits that are pretty challenging if you haven’t had two centuries to practise them. 

3. Amadeus 

It might not be historically accurate, but there’s something about the sheer joy Tom Hulce brings to his performance as Wolfie M that makes you wish you’d been trained from near-birth in music by a ruthless pedagogue, even if you had to live in the 18th century.

The standout piano moment sees him instantly memorising a Salieri piece after a single listen (“The rest is just the same, isn’t it?”) then riffing off it to create the start of Non piu andrai from the Marriage Of Figaro, punctuated by Tom Hulse’s intensely irritating laugh. 

Honestly, you do have to sympathise with his rival just a bit. 

4. Grand Piano

You’ve probably never seen this film. I’d never heard of it until my Prime recommends somehow dug it out for me, and yet it’s somehow ten times better than the film (Phone Booth) that it’s most similar to.

The (high) concept: Elijah Wood is a troubled pianist making his big-venue comeback, except that someone calls him mid-concert to let him know that if he plays a wrong note, a sniper will shoot him. Who? Why? How does this make any sense in the context of the plan that’s ultimately revealed?

It doesn’t matter: what follows is 80 minutes of nail-biting technical playing, with a whole bunch of twists on the way. Brill. 

5. Shine

Anyone who’s messed about on the piano for more than a few months knows that Flight Of The Bumblebee isn’t the most technically demanding tune around - it’s basically a whole load of chromatic scales with a pretty basic left hand - but hooooo boy is it tough to play at anything approaching the tempo from this film’s maddest scene.

The rest of the film’s a great microcosm of the madness you get when you’re trying to nail a piece that’s just outside your ability - drumming it on the table, thinking about it in bed - but the bar piano bit is just pure fun. Another must-learn. 

6. Casablanca

“Play it once, Sam. For old time’s sake.” There aren’t many must-see sing-and-play moments in film history (sorry, Fabulous Baker Boys), but Dooley Wilson’s soulful performance of As Time Goes By - he’s a percussionist, so didn’t actually perform it - is the centrepiece of the film. One for the repertoire. 

7. Scott Joplin

OK, full disclosure: I haven’t seen this entire film, but I’ve watched the best scene from it about ten times on YouTube, because it is amazing.

The setup is simple: Joplin (Billy Dee Williams) and his collaborator Louis Chauvin (who in real life, died tragically at 27), get into a raucous piano duel with some locals in a bar, tinkling out improvised melodies over a thumping oompah bassline.

After seeing off the competition, Chauvin busts out an up-tempo version of Maple Leaf Rag and the crowd goes wild, impressing local impresario John Stark and setting the stage for Joplin to become the first ever pop star. Incredible stuff. 

8. Rocketman

Sure, we’ve all fantasised about taking to the ivories dressed in outsize shades and a leather boa, then bringing our performance to a climax by standing up and hoofing the keyboard. But the stuff that actual dreams are made of comes in Elton’s formative years here, where he listens to his piano teacher play a bit of Rondo Alla Turca - probably the most pop-song-like classical piece there is - and then recreates it on the spot. Maddening. 

9. Westworld 

There isn’t really a memorable pianist in HBO’s twist-tastic rethinking of the Crichton classic, but the player piano featured in the opening credits perfectly mirrors the themes of the show: a machine designed to mimic humanity, with a perfection that could easily be off-putting. 

There’s nothing mechanical about the arrangements Ramin Djawadi’s put together for the show, though: his versions of Radiohead’s No Surprises and House Of The Rising Sun are some of the first things I learned. 

10. Groundhog Day

The endgame. There are lots of good answers to the question “What would you do if you were forced to repeat the same day a near-infinite number of times?” but “Repeatedly interrupt someone else’s piano lesson, until you’re able to effortlessly segue from boogie woogie to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paginini and then back again,” is a great one.

Phil’s town-wowing medley makes the perfect climax for his perfect day, and if you’ve never fantasised about replicating it, you’ve either never seen Groundhog Day (fix this) or you’re lying. The first bit’s easier than it sounds!