Finally! The 2014 film How To Write A Banjo Concerto, which follows Béla Fleck through the process of conceiving and composing The Imposter, is being released to video on demand. Starting tomorrow, April 21, viewers will be able to watch the movie through iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo on Demand, Vudu, and Cinema Now.
In truth, the film could have been called “How To Learn How To Write A Banjo Concerto,” because that’s exactly what it shows. Béla was commissioned by The Nashville Symphony in 2010 to create such a piece, which he accepted even though he had no experience in that realm. Over the course of 96 minutes, we watch him go from a confused neophyte to a nervous and uncertain performer, a process that takes almost exactly a year.
The early stages of the film find Fleck in discussion with friends and fellow musical titans like Edgar Meyer, Noam Pikelny, and Chris Thile, inviting their input as he prepares to start writing. He is quite open about his ignorance of the process, and the fact that he has little training or experience with standard musical notation.
There is tremendous intimacy to this early part of the project. Filmmaker Sascha Paladino trusted Fleck to collect much of this early footage himself, setting up a camera in his work space to record impressions as he went along. It surely helped that Sascha and Béla are half-brothers, who have collaborated in the past on film ventures like Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary on Béla’s journey of musical discovery to Africa.
We follow the composer first to write in a cottage by the Oregon seashore, and later to do the same in Tecate, just across the US border with Mexico near San Deigo. The use of camera audio and found lighting in these sections gives the impression of a home movie. It could be distracting to some, but it suits the “reality TV” vibe it is meant to portray.
As the piece comes together, we recognize Béla’s realization that he also has to learn to play it by a date certain. You can see the terror in his eyes as he prepares to run through the piece for the first time with the Nashville Symphony
An effective technique throughout is the addition of Béla’s notes and recollections in text on the screen, like “I want to kill myself…” after flubbing some of his parts during the initial read through. It serves its narrative function far more smoothly than a running voiceover, since so much of the footage is already Fleck addressing the camera.
Overall the film is a bit impressionistic, with little dabs of the process here, and small bits of the concept there, but building always towards the ultimate climax, the live premiere performance which is also to be telecast and recorded for CD release. The accumulating stress is neatly registered with an ongoing countdown of days, then hours, and finally minutes, displayed in text at the beginning of each scene.
But as the film reaches the actual performance, it switches from a loose documentary style, to a multi-camera shoot which captures each section of the orchestra in turn as their lines are featured. Most of the first movement is included here.
Following the intensity of the concert, Palatino ends the film with a celebratory day-after brunch and jam session at the Flecks’ home. Here we see Béla and Abby with Sam Bush, Rayna Gellert and Nashville Symphony Concertmaster Juni Iwasaki playing an old time tune together, interspersed with scenes of Fleck accepting congratulations all around.
How To Write A Banjo Concerto might be best enjoyed by viewers with a good understanding of Béla’s career trajectory, and it probably helps if you love the banjo and banjo players, as I do. If so, you’ll find Fleck previewing the concerto for Earl Scruggs accompanied by his computer disarmingly charming, as you will his discussion over whiskey with Noam Pikelny about the Scruggs personal concert.
But anyone who simply loves music, and has an interest in how it is created, will appreciate this film. Look for it April 21 at the sites mentioned above.