Is it worth it? That’s what anyone must wonder, after seeing the adverts for the online courses of MasterClass on social media. Will I really learn how to make movies like Martin Scorsese, or write a blockbuster novel?
The company launched four years ago with individual courses, but sales have soared since it introduced the right to watch everything in its library for an access-all-areas fee of £170.
Each course comes with a PDF workbook to download, with varying levels of advice, techniques and suggestions for home work. The longest lessons last more than 20 minutes but some are only a few minutes long.
Helen Mirren and corgis in The Queen. It’s a surprise to hear that she did not go to drama school and has never been to a drama class
It’s a privilege to watch Martin Scorsese dissect a scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo
The company was started in 2015 by David Rogier, a US entrepreneur who set out to give people an easier way to learn from the best in the world, having struggled himself at school.
To get the best out of MasterClass, you do need to have a degree of competency already. Herbie Hancock is not going to teach you how to play jazz piano from scratch. Steve Martin can’t make you funny. On the other hand, Martin is good company, goofing about on a banjo.
You can see the results of Event’s efforts below, but is MasterClass worth the £170 access fee? Yes, if you want to hear at length from people you admire in one particular field and then browse for insights from others. But if you’re not willing to commit to the notes and the homework, probably not.
By Cole Moreton
HOW TO TELL A JOKE BY STEVE MARTIN 25 lessons
The brilliant stand-up comedian and actor – star of The Jerk and Roxanne among many other movies – goofs around for the first few minutes, drinking tea and playing the banjo, before telling the viewer to have confidence: ‘Know that there’s room for you out there in the world.’
The brilliant stand-up comedian and actor – star of The Jerk and Roxanne among many other movies – goofs around for the first few minutes, drinking tea and playing the banjo, before telling the viewer to have confidence: ‘Know that there’s room for you out there in the world’
That’s easy for a man with an honorary Oscar to say. Cue anecdotes about his career and some really banal general advice like ‘channel your own weirdness’ and ‘be so good they can’t ignore you’. But when he gets down to the nitty-gritty of joke structure, timing and how to deliver a good line, this masterclass becomes useful to aspiring comedians, or Steve Martin fans at least.
The analysis of a joke about giving his cat a bath – ‘The fur gets stuck to my tongue!’ – is better than the gag, for example, offering a key to some of his best work. Martin also works with students on their acts, surprisingly telling them to shut down hecklers. ‘They paid to see you. You didn’t pay to see them.’
It’s mostly just a rich old comic telling stories about how he got to be so great, but there is wisdom along the way, and of course the archive stuff is very, very funny.
Verdict: 3/5, at best, but with some five-star old comedy clips
HOW TO WRITE A THRILLER BY DAN BROWN
Whatever you think of his prose style, there’s no doubt the author of The Da Vinci Code and other huge hits can tell a tale. The way Brown unpicks the building blocks of a good story will be really useful to anyone trying to write a thriller or who wants to tell stories, which are at the heart of so much that we do. ‘Suspense begins with the three Cs: the contract, the clock and the crucible.’ The contract is the many promises, big and small, that an author makes to a reader through the story. ‘If you’ve suggested that your protagonist wants to buy a little black dress, by the end we’ve got to see her buy one or understand why she didn’t.’
Whatever you think of his prose style, there’s no doubt the author of The Da Vinci Code and other huge hits can tell a tale
The clock, says Brown, is the time pressure on the hero that raises the stakes. ‘And think of the crucible as a box that constrains your characters, offers them no escape and forces them to act.’ In his book Angels And Demons, he used an anti-matter bomb. ‘It’s not subtle, but it is effective!’
Verdict: 4/5, better than his books
HOW TO ACT BY HELEN MIRREN
We start with Dame Helen Mirren strolling on to a vast stage decorated with only a rug and a chair. ‘I just did what I consider to be one of the most difficult things to do in my profession of acting, which is to walk as yourself.’ Really? Seriously? Yes, apparently it is ‘peculiarly difficult’ to be natural on stage. ‘You just think, “I’ve got to get to that chair and I’ve got to sit down.” But you know what? That was acting.’
We could all do with following her final advice: ‘Be on time. Don’t be an idiot’
This is all a bit luvvie, although later lessons about getting in character, being on set or performing Shakespeare will certainly help aspiring actors. It’s a surprise to hear that she did not go to drama school and has never been to a drama class when there is such a great deal of practical advice here, as when Dame Helen compares sex scenes to choreography and says they are ‘so not sexy. About the unsexiest thing you can do on a film set is have sex’. Or when she explores her career-defining role as the Queen in the film of the same name, where she noticed Her Majesty seemed calm and collected but was also, secretly, furiously twiddling her wedding ring. ‘She was showing unbelievable self-discipline, but it had to come out somewhere – the nervousness, the insecurity she was constantly having to overcome.’
The observations are a little too vague and general at times, but if you’re fascinated by Dame Helen or aspire to be like her, we could all do with following her final advice: ‘Be on time. Don’t be an idiot.’
Verdict: 3/5, four if you’re an actor
HOW TO MAKE A MOVIE BY MARTIN SCORSESE
One for the diehard fans, as Martin Scorsese’s observations are dull and wandering. His observations on casting, storyboarding, using music and so on are predictable and could come from anyone. Which of us is ever really going to make a film on the scale he does?
With Scorcese’s lessons you may not make an Oscar-winner but you’ll be a better watcher of the movies, by far
But when he starts showing and talking about scenes and directors that have inspired him, the course takes off. It’s a privilege to watch Scorsese dissect a scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo in which James Stewart’s character sees Kim Novak enter a bar and the background shifts to draw us in.
‘Here’s the key moment. She comes into this beautiful lighting and the actual colour of the wall starts to change. The close-up on him has changed, it’s over his shoulder. It certainly makes him his most vulnerable. She slips out of that frame… she floats away [we can see that]. He’s already in love with a person that’s died.’
Stick with those bits and you may not make an Oscar-winner but you’ll be a better watcher of the movies, by far.
Verdict: 2/5, with flashes of brilliance
HOW TO SING BY CHRISTINA AGUILERA
This is brilliant. Aguilera has a truly magnificent voice, revealed in full here in the studio with a band and nothing else; no fancy arrangements, just skill and power. She picks it all apart in a proper masterclass, demonstrating her warm-ups, explaining how a straighter posture helps breathing, and how to get close up to the microphone for intimate, breathy moments but pull it away when you’re belting out the notes. Aguilera demonstrates the difference between techniques by helping a young rock singer learn a modern pop style, changing the source of his sound from the top of his throat to the bottom, and from his chest to deep in his core muscles.
Aguilera has a truly magnificent voice, revealed in full here in the studio with a band and nothing else; no fancy arrangements, just skill and power
It’s very honest, as in when she describes how collaborator Linda Perry ordered her to ditch the trills and sing with simplicity and emotional truth. ‘She taught me to appreciate the beauty in imperfection.’
Watching her unpack the Stars And Stripes Forever line by line is a revelation. Aguilera is eloquent and interesting, even if you’re not a singer. We’ve all got mouths and bodies: this will change the way you use yours.
Verdict: 5/5, hitting all the right notes