Sunday, August 22, 2010


I have previously written about my musical mentor, Herb Pomeroy, in my blog, most notably here. Herb surprised me by being a fan of amateur sports. He had that in common with my father, who loved high school sports more than anything. Herb conducted the band I was in at MIT in addition to being a full-time faculty member at Berklee College of music (where I also studied with him). He remarked more than once that although he loved teaching at Berklee, in some ways he enjoyed conducting the MIT band more, because the musicians there were doing it solely for the love of the music.

I thought of this many times while watching the outstanding documentary THEY CAME TO PLAY. The film is about the Van Cliburn competition; no, not the famous one, the Amateur Competition for people over 35 years old. Anyone who has had a professional music career is ineligible for the competition. Many of the competitors are people who gave up music early in life, only to return to it later. Many of them also have excelled in other fields from medicine to business to professional sports.

I must admit that I am biased about this film. The director, Alex Rotaru, was a student of mine over a decade ago at USC, where he took my film music class. I'd like to think that class had some influence on his appreciation for music.

The film is a bit similar to Jeff Blitz's brilliant documentary SPELLBOUND about a spelling competition. Any competition-based doc is bound to be compared to that film, but it is indeed a compliment. THEY CAME TO PLAY is most similar in that it really focusses quite well on the characters - and I mean, it, they really are CHARACTERS in the movie. There are competitors from all over the world, all walks of life, men and women, all races. They will make you laugh and care about them.

The film is extremely well-edited and structured. It is well shot (although the projection I saw looked like a DVD and not HD resolution). In fact the only criticisms I would have are completely technical, things like mike noise were intrusive in the interviews. Otherwise the film is very involving and moving. The audience I was with (maybe 20 people at the screening) laughed in all the right places, and applauded several times for performances. It is quite a film.

If you are at all a fan of classical music, this film will speak to you. The sheer joy of loving music shines through this film at every moment. You will be moved by these people and their love of playing. Please look for screenings, buy the DVD when it is released, or watch for the film on TV, it's likely to end up on PBS or some other venue.

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