Most everyone who is a fan of bluegrass music knows that Michael Cleveland is blind; the fact is often briefly mentioned in bios and introductions, or tossed around in stories from one picker to another. However, any disabilities he may have are often quickly forgotten in the face of his sheer musical talent and the magnetism he displays on stage. He’s Michael Cleveland the 11-time Fiddle Player of the Year, the leader of Flamekeeper, the multi-instrumentalist – not Michael Cleveland, the blind musician. However, the fact remains that his blindness has influenced his growth as a musician and bandleader, and this is what is explored by the new documentary from Validate Films, Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story.
Throughout the feature-length film, director John Presley deftly weaves together recent live performances, interviews with family, friends, and fellow musicians, and video, audio, and photographs from Michael’s childhood, creating an intriguing portrait of a man whose entire life has centered around his love of bluegrass music. Michael’s love for the music bloomed early. His grandparents were bluegrass fans and had a huge collection of records and 8-tracks. He recalls hearing a fiddle for the first time and being absolutely, completely hooked, then spending nights with his head laid against a speaker trying to soak in as much as he could. Michael reveals that while many musicians steer themselves away from fan favorite Orange Blossom Special, he embraces it. It was the song that inspired him to pick up the instrument, and he relishes playing and reinventing it.
The film is mostly chronological, taking viewers through Michael’s parents worries upon learning about his disabilities immediately after his birth, to his time spent attending the Kentucky School for the Blind, where he took many of his first musical lessons. A particularly poignant moment comes from Michael’s voiceover describing his first week at the residential school as a young child. After his parents dropped him off, his roommate continually told him that he would never be able to return home – he would be at the school forever. His fear turned into surprise when he was able to visit his family the next weekend.
The film also covers more recent struggles in Michael’s life, helped along by candid interviews with several of his Flamekeeper bandmates. While their admiration for Michael’s talents as both a musician and a bandleader are evident, they also discuss his former problems with alcoholism and how it affected life on the road and other musicians’ perceptions of Michael. Michael and his bandmates each acknowledge that his decision to quit drinking several years ago was one of the best choices he could have made.
The musicians of note featured in the film are not necessarily ones you would expect from a film about someone who is largely viewed as a very traditional bluegrass player. Bela Fleck, the Kruger Brothers, and Andy Statman are each included playing with Michael, and in interviews, largely remarking on his ability to take traditional-sounding bluegrass to entirely new places. Louisville-based musician Adam Bibelhauser perhaps sums up the film’s thoughts on Michael’s music best near the end of the documentary, noting that “he does traditional songs that people like, and then he does his own thing.”
Flamekeeper is certainly inspirational. Learning about Michael’s health issues – particularly severe hearing loss from ear infections as a child – makes it easy to wonder how he could have ever become such a talented and highly-regarded musician. However, at no point is this a “woe is me” tale. Instead, it’s more of a glimpse inside the background and everyday life of a popular musician who has otherwise led a fairly private life. Some of the film’s best moments are those where the camera captures Michael going about his daily routine: giving Skype lessons, using voice technology on his iPhone to locate apps, and calling a Lyft to take him to a jam. Fans of Michael, and those of bluegrass in general, should thoroughly enjoy this look into his world.
Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story is available for streaming now on Amazon and Vimeo. For more information, visit www.flamekeeperfilm.com.