Making the Grade
(Ireland | 2017 | 96 minutes | d: Ken Wardrop)
TUESDAY, MAY 22 6:30 PM | SIFF Cinema Uptown
SATURDAY, MAY 26 11:00 AM | SIFF Cinema Egyptian
SUNDAY, JUNE 3 1:00 PM | Kirkland Performance Center
Piano lessons are a rite of passage for many children. In Ireland, apparently over 30,000 students advance from elementary levels up to a "Grade 8" standard, year after year. I don't know how that compares to the number of students in other countries; or why the piano is so popular in Ireland, as opposed to other instruments; or even if this musical education is mandatory, hence the number of students. The documentary doesn't really touch on any of that. What it does emphasize is the power of music, something KEXP strongly believes in. You see how inclusive music is: how it helps a struggling divorceé cope after her son is diagnosed with a brain tumor, how it helps a child with cerebral palsy express herself and strengthen her fingers, and how it helps a heavy metal dude learn musical discipline and how to break out from tired approaches to songwriting.
Over the course of 96 minutes, you're introduced to about fifty piano players -- students and teachers. (And they're never formally introduced, which can be a bit confusing at first.) The film switches from talking head interviews to slice-of-life footage of the students at practice. There's no soundtrack aside from when a class is in session. There's no real narrative nor drama that pushes the film along. The annual exams are mentioned a few times, but you never feel the "will they or won't they pass" tension. It's just a gentle, lilting portrait of the relationship between two people at different skill levels on the same instrument.
There are very few popular culture references that crop up, giving the film a timeless quality. In one scene, a father mentions he and his daughter first learned to play the "Miami Vice" theme song on her plastic toy piano; in another scene, the tutor asks her young pupil if she likes One Direction. A pair of pre-teen brothers scoffs at how all piano teachers drive a Toyota Yaris. (Cut to their teacher, a sassy nun named Sister Carol, retorting, "It's a very good car!")
Ken Wardrop is an award-winning Irish director with an artistic eye -- this is a man who knows his rule of thirds! Every scene is drenched in bright sunshine, and every home is impeccably dressed, to the point where I wondered if he had a crew cleaning each families' living room before he hit "record."
Due to its pastoral pacing, this film might not appeal to all. But, the documentary reminds us that music is for all, young and old, virtuoso to newbie.
KEXP is a proud co-sponsor of the "Face the Music" series at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival, running May 17 - June 10 in various theatres across the area. Follow along with all our coverage throughout the festival here.