Hearing is Believing


The joy of music.

(2017) Music Documentary (Gravitas/Foresight) Rachel Flowers, Dweezil Zappa, Keith Emerson, Jeanie Flowers, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, Andy Radford, Dan Flowers, Ian McDuffie, Frank Cavenee, Taylor Eigsti, Ellis Hall, Brian Hutchison, Vaughan Flowers, David Pinto, Benny Chong, Larry Tuttle, Joy Cavenee, Mari Kawaguchi, Leo Medina, Cynthia Gonzalez. Directed by Lorenzo DeStefano

 

Maybe once in a generation (if you’re lucky) comes a musical prodigy who has the ability to be a game changer. That person for this generation might just be Rachel Flowers. An absolutely lights-out pianist, she is able to hear a song once and then play it, possessed of true perfect pitch. She is also similarly skilled on a multitude of instruments, including guitar and flute. She is an amazing composer, working in a variety of styles and genres including pop, progressive rock, jazz and Latin. She is, in short, the real deal.

What makes the 21-year-old musician’s accomplishments even more impressive is that she has been blind since she was a baby, having been born prematurely and developing retinopathy which caused her retinas to detach repeatedly until eventually her parents had to accept that she would be blind for the rest of her life. She lives with her mom Jeanie in a modest home in Oxnard along with her little brother Vaughan who seems a typical well-adjusted teen who admits that he lives in the shadow of his sister and then the film proves it by going virtually the entire rest of the film without him appearing on camera.

The documentary follows Rachel essentially for two years as her impressive YouTube videos garner her  notice from various music industry folks who begin to help her – some directly, some not – but she begins to get a following. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t already well-known; by the time she was 11 she’d been on 60 Minutes twice. However, until recently her notoriety wasn’t really translating into income to speak of as the small family lived hand-to-mouth, surviving on Jeanie’s paychecks.

She does get the blessing of some pretty impressive musicians, including jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, keyboardist Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer fame) who seemed to hold a special place in Flowers’ heart – she performs several of his songs during the movie – and fellow blind prodigy Stevie Wonder.

She leads off the film performing the Walter Murphy disco-era pop hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” serving notice that not only is she into classical but she’s into pop in a big way. The movie follows her from an appearance at a local concert hall in Oxnard to a Las Vegas stage with Dweezil Zappa playing the music of his father Frank (some of the most difficult and demanding compositions of the 20th century) to performing in her church and an impromptu performance at a big box store trying out a variety of keyboards on sale in front of admiring shoppers.

Rachel is an engaging presence, smiling broadly whenever she is playing music (for the most part; for more somber pieces her expression is more serious) and charming all with her humble demeanor and her infectious giggle which you will either be annoyed by or look forward to depending on your tolerance for girlish giggles and she giggles a lot. She is clearly a talented performer but also her original music ranges from haunting to joyful. She is clearly a talent to be reckoned with and I can’t imagine that she won’t be getting multimillion dollar offers from big players in the coming months.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to its subject. I haven’t seen DeStefano’s other documentaries but I sure hope they’re better than this one. He obviously adores his subject and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are treated to multiple scenes of musicians and admirers praising Rachel effusively. It isn’t that she doesn’t deserve it but her music speaks for itself; we don’t need to hear people endlessly remark on how talented she is. We all know it.

To make matters worse, DeStefano packs his film with cinematic ephemera that do nothing to really give us any sort of insight into Rachel herself. We see her at a self-defense course for the blind with other blind folks but as we see person after person practicing their techniques I began to fidget and wonder what on earth any of this has to do with the woman or her music. Occasionally Rachel talks about her creative process and how she expands on snippets of melodies that pop into her head, but we don’t get a sense of how she tackles the act of creating music overall.

The concert footage is extensive, giving us a chance to listen to entire pieces of her music which is a nice touch; so many music documentaries go for more is more, giving us 15-30 seconds of a song before going on to the next one. Not so here and it’s a good thing; really the best way to get to know Rachel Flowers is through her music. I say that because that’s essentially the only way we get to know Rachel Flowers here; the filmmaker does a poor job of showing us who this woman is.

That’s too bad because you will want to get to know her better once you hear her music. Something tells me that the director got so close to her subject that he lost objectivity and as a result made some poor directing decisions. I love the music of Rachel Flowers; I can’t say I can recommend the documentary about her as wholeheartedly. See it for the musical sequences which are enthralling but be aware that this is a severely flawed presentation that might send you scurrying for YouTube to watch more of her performances. That might be a much less frustrating way to encounter her.

 

REASONS TO GO: Rachel Flowers is an exceptional musician and extremely likable person. The extended concert footage gives you more than a snippet of a song to enjoy.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is ragged; there’s way too many cinematic non-sequiturs and extraneous footage. There is a little bit too much fawning going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few instances of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Flowers will be playing at a tribute concert to the late Keith Emerson in Birmingham, England on July 28th with, among others, Rick Wakeman of Yes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best and Most Beautiful Things
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Transformers: The Last Knight

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Mission to Lars


Mission to Lars

What a long strange trip it’s been.

(2012) Documentary (Spicer and Moore) Tom Spicer, Kate Spicer, Will Spicer, Lars Ulrich, Dr. Randi Hagerman, Jasmin St. Clair, Kerry King, James Hetfield, Janet (caregiver), Mum, Dad and Stepmum, Steve and Brian. Directed by James Moore and William Spicer

We all have dreams, no matter who we are. Even those of us who may suffer from intellectual disabilities have them. They can be great or small and some may even seem to be on the surface unattainable. There are occasions however when with the help of those who love us and care for us the most, anything can be possible – even achieving the unattainable.

Tom Spicer suffers from Fragile X Syndrome which is also known as Martin-Bell Syndrome. It’s not a form of autism, but autism can go hand in hand with it and often some of the symptoms of the disorder may well appear to be autism; in fact, Tom’s sister describes Fragile X during the film as “autism with bells on.” Tom lives in a care facility in England; he’s 40 years old and works at converting old newspapers into bedding for dogs which is a bit more complicated than you’d imagine. His mom and dad still have contact with him, but he seems to respond to his stepmom more than anyone.

His older sister Kate, a journalist and younger brother Will, a filmmaker have essentially ignored him most of their adult lives; they still see him from time to time but Tom can be difficult. One of the by-products of Fragile-X is enhanced anxiety which can cause him to shut down. He has a hard time dealing with things outside the norm and sometimes it can require a great deal of patience to spend any time with him.

Tom’s dream is to meet Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica. He shares that dream with plenty of people, but for Tom, music is something of a refuge; he turns to it when his anxiety becomes intolerable. Kate and Will decide that they should make this happen but they will have to journey to America in order to do it as Metallica was on tour of the United States at the time this was made. Kate has some contacts that might be of use and as a journalist she has no problem picking up a phone and talking to people who are used to saying “no.” Will and his production partner Moore document the journey.

First off, getting Tom on the plane is no easy matter. This is far, far, far out of his comfort zone and his first instinct is to go to the paper shed where he feels useful and can shut out the anxiety. The trip is almost over before it starts.

However, it is not much of a spoiler to say that eventually they get Tom on that plane and take him to Los Angeles where they rent an RV (or caravan for those in Britain who may be reading this) and off they go to Las Vegas, Sacramento and Anaheim, following the tour.

Tom’s anxieties continue to be a factor; loud noises are difficult for him, much more so than the rest of us when loud volumes which may be relatively comfortable for us can seem to a Fragile X sufferer to be ten to a hundred times louder than how the rest of us experience it; when noise is truly uncomfortable it can be excruciating to someone with Fragile X.

Moore and Will Spicer capture some beautiful images of the English countryside as well as of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park where the Spicers make a brief stop on their way to Sacramento. There are times where you can’t help but admire the images on the screen.

What sets this film apart is the human element. Kate is a bit of a worrier and throughout the movie she tends to hide behind some fairly unattractive hats. She is the one who makes the connections with Metallica’s management who turn out to be extremely accommodating. Will is less of a presence here; he’s mostly behind the camera but he seems to have quite the can-do attitude.

We do hear from an expert on Fragile X who explains the disorder somewhat but quite frankly we really only get the basics. Those who are interested should Google it as there is plenty of information about it on the web. In another note of grace, the filmmakers are donating a portion of the proceeds to a charity for children’s mental health in Britain.

The subject matter may be the journey to find Lars but that’s not really what this film is about. This is about how Tom deals with his genetic disorder and how it affects his life every day. It’s also about the love of a sister and a brother who want to make a memory for the brother whose life has been in many ways more difficult than theirs that he will always treasure. It is also about the kindness of strangers. It is an unexpectedly warm and compassionate documentary and if you’re looking for something to make you feel good, you can do no worse.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming and occasionally heartbreaking. Some beautiful cinematography. Admirable cause.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes gets repetitive. Kate’s hats.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bedfellow is an actual hotel in the Tribeca area of New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes (effective September 25)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabrielle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stonewall