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Music Makes Movies
by Mary Nyiri

Let the Music Begin!

Several documentaries in the 54th Berlinale looked at music from very different perspectives. One film, Rhythm Is It!, follows 250 children as they experience classical music, most for the first time, through learning to dance. Another, Lightning in a Bottle, showcases “Salute to Blues”, a concert at the New York Radio City Music Hall held in February 2003. And finally, the rise and fall of the legendary Ramones, the world’s first punk rock band, is told in End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones. Whatever your personal taste in music, each of these films presents a very special view that well may cause you to sway to the rhythm or tap your toes.

In Rhythm Is It!, Sir Simon Rattle as the new conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brings together classical dance and music as a part of his first season. With Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps as the music, filmmakers Thomas Grube and Enrique Sánchez Lansch spent five months following the motion – 250 children and young adults learning much more than just how to dance.

British choreographer Royston Maldoon has the daunting task of teaching the 250 students from 25 different nations and a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds. He begins by telling the students, “You can change your life in a dance class.” And by the end, it is clear that some really have. As the camera spans the various groups, you can see skepticism, amusement, boredom and even hope (such as in the photo on the opposite page). Nervousness is palpable. Almost everyone giggles or talks out of turn. The filmmakers concentrate on three students: Marie (14), Martin (19) and Olayinka (15), each of whom takes something very different from the experience. Perhaps the biggest changes occur with Martin and how he perceives himself. At first, Martin admits he does not even like to be touched. He does not socialize with anyone and lies to friends and relatives about what he is doing. His face contorts with discomfort when he must be picked up and held by another dancer. His transformation is remarkable as he gains confidence and learns to dance with abandon, even inviting family to the actual performance.

The film moves from the dance studio to the orchestra hall where Sir Rattle talks about his love of music and how it all began. As a child when he heard a youth orchestra for the first time, he felt that everything looked bigger, colors were brighter and sensations were closer. He explains, “…I felt as though some kind of fire had come through my insides. It’s a kind of heat, it’s white heat…” His passion for music burns through his every move.

Although the film concentrates on just a few of the personalities, in the background you can see the metamorphosis of the group as a whole. Assistant choreographer Susannah Broughton recognizes these changes and observes, “At the end of the session today, they started working in silence. When that happens, a real transformation begins to happen, because the mind and the voice and the sound switches off, and instantly in order to carry on, the sight and the sensory perception has to kick in, in order for them to stay with it. And the moment that happens, that’s when the real shift beings.” The performance before an audience of 3000 was phenomenal, but not enough of the performance was included, leaving us all wanting more.

Directors Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields manage to present an intelligent and orderly documentary of the utterly bizarre and talented punk band The Ramones in End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones. They began as a group in Forest Hills, New York, in 1974 and ended with their final concert, #2263 in Los Angeles, on August 6, 1996. The Ramones were the first punk rock band to sign a major label contract, releasing a total of 21 studio and live albums.

This film gets up close and personal with the founding four Ramones – Joey (voice), Johnny (guitar), Tommy (drums) and Dee Dee (bass), and other members who come and go, interspersing archive film of concerts and interviews, including some from friends and fans. With their fast and furious songs, like one, two, three, four and Gabba Gabba Hey, they conquered London on July 4, 1976, where it is said the audience included musicians who later became members of The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Pretenders. The Ramones stayed true (almost!) to their style and art, watching others gain more monetary success through imitation. Despite their obvious loyal following and 21 albums, it became apparent in the film that Joey never saw himself as a success. After the film, the directors agreed that The Ramones always thought they should have had the same kind of success as the Rolling Stones.

On November 30, 2003, the City of New York officially named the corner of Bowery and Second Street “Joey Ramone Place” to recognize his achievements and contributions to the City’s music scene. The location is the closest to the club CBGB’s, a former country and bluegrass bar where The Ramones rose to stardom from the New York underground. (Mary Nyiri)

Director Antoine Fuqua seemed like a baby (born in 1966) among all the legendary blues singers in Lightning in a Bottle. Still he managed to hold his own to put together a fabulous documentary of just one night at Radio City Music Hall on February 7, 2003. Lightning in a Bottle is that film and the performance was called “Salute to the Blues.” It featured 80-year-old blues singers belting famous songs of people already dead, such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King, as well as younger singers from the pop scene such as Mariah Carey, Natalie Cole, and Bonnie Raitt. Did you know that You Aren’t Nothing But a Hound Dog was originally a blues song? The film is a priceless education in blues history, from Africa to the U.S. in the ‘50s to England in the ‘60s, with real footage of real singers interspersed with the actual concert in New York. All proceeds from the concert went to support the musical education of young people. How many people in the Berlin audience would have liked to have started a-hollerin’ an’ a-stompin’ an’ a-movin’ their feet? How strange that nobody did, not once throughout the whole 103 minutes. What does it take to spark uninhibited enthusiasm among international people – not just northern Germans – in Berlin? (Becky Tan)

You Gotta Keep the Beat – Another Perspective

What a relief! Documentaries about music were enough to renew faith in mankind after absorbing hours of stories about death, faithlessness, propaganda, murder, and drugs during this Berlinale.

Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields, producers and general enablers of End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones said, “Trying to choose your favorite Ramone was like rating your favorite Marx Brother.” How to do it? Each was an individual in his own right, not very surprising considering that none of them were really named Ramone or even related in the first place. Some were replaced throughout the group’s 20 years of fame. Gramaglia worked in their tour and last management office and later with Dee Dee Ramone when he attempted a solo career after The Ramones’ last concert in 1996. With this first-hand experience he began work on the film in 1999. Always the model (or the Pied Piper as Gramaglia said) but never the prize-winners, The Ramones were rightly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of their influence on other bands. Perhaps one should call them the Grim Reapers of Rock and Roll considering that many died young after lives of excesses and hardships on tour buses traveling all over the country (Joey Ramone died of cancer at age 49). No matter what the arguments were (often resolved by Johnny Ramone), they all loved the band. It was a cause higher than themselves, kind of like the mafia. Once you’ve seen the film, you will want a Ramones t-shirt, available on the artist’s (Arturo Vega) website.

Now imagine: it’s the last day of the festival; there have already been three prior showings of the same film. It’s 10 p.m. and in two cinemas, simultaneously, this film is sold out, and it’s about nothing more than some kids rehearsing for a dance performance. That is exactly what happened with Rhythm Is It!

Watching the over 250 children and young people rehearse, you can really see them go through stages of impatience, anger, and frustration. After six weeks’ rehearsal, they literally sail through their final performance, figures of pride and enthusiasm. The audience of 3000 cheers, and everyone is uplifted, not just the young people who have changed their lives in a dance class. Conductor Sir Simon Rattle deserves praise, of course, but the real laurels should go to British choreographer Royston Maldoom who never gave up. Pedagogues as well as reluctant teachers should see this film and learn new techniques for motivating young people. Most interesting was the way children learned to savor the feeling of stillness, something many of us have lost or never had in this hectic world today. (Becy Tan)