Appellate Judge James A. Stewart spent five years organizing workshops of DVD reviewers to answer the question, "What is DVD reviewing?"
"What is music?"
It's a question you might not have considered. After all, even the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra found themselves stumbling at first with the question. The man who asked was filmmaker Daniel Anker (Emmy winner and Oscar nominee for Scottsboro: An American Tragedy). Anker isn't a professional musician, but he has worked on several projects involving classical music and jazz.
While, on the surface, Music from the Inside Out appears to be a documentary on the Philadelphia Orchestra, it turns out to be a video essay that tries to find out what music is and what it means to the people who perform it.
"It's a personal film of an amateur musician, told through the voices of these professionals," Anker told a TV interviewer in a segment accompanying the movie.
Anker spent five years with the orchestra before turning his finished film loose in the world of film festivals. The movie was a survivor, becoming an official selection at several festivals and getting a nomination for Best Picture from the International Documentary Association.
Facts of the Case
The question "What is music?" appears on the screen right at the start.
"This is a lifetime challenge. You expect a brief answer? You want a short answer?" one musician answers. Another just breaks out in nervous laughter at this stumper. These answers are interspersed with footage of the Philadelphia Orchestra performing.
From here, we go on to workshops in which the musicians sit around discussing the meaning of their work, follow the orchestra on tour in Europe and China, see several of the musicians in their off hours, and hear about how some of the musicians began their careers.
To put his movie together, Daniel Anker did more than just observe the Philadelphia Orchestra. He organized workshops in which groups of 20 or so musicians discussed music. You see a few minutes from those workshops here, with scenes such as the one in which a percussionist's quiet demeanor off-stage is contrasted with her high-energy performances by her colleagues. Anker also traveled with the orchestra. Tour montages show the performers traveling, unpacking, and rehearsing on the road.
While the orchestra is seen in concert and rehearsal, many of the musical performances here appear to have been done just for the film. Anker acknowledges in commentary that he asked for certain performances—one woman was told to play something loud to go with her comments—and worked hard to match the music to the words and images.
Thus, Music from the Inside Out lets you glimpse the lives of the musicians, as you'd expect, but focuses more on the philosophical question posed as it opens. For the most part, the segments are interesting and manage to convey some elements of the musicians' lives and motivations. One musician talks about her synesthesia—the way she sees sound and colors together; another says she learned an instrument to annoy her mother, who thought music was too noisy. The question posed at the beginning isn't fully answered—perhaps it can't be—but Anker keeps the movie moving well enough that you end up paying attention to the sound, images, and lives rather than trying to define music.
This is a beautiful movie. Hand-held cameras produce mostly crisp, clear images, although a few on-location shots have the expected imperfections. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack is impressive, not just with classical music, but also with jazz, bluegrass, and salsa. Anker's editing is seamless as he blends performances, profiles, and philosophy.
Interviews and commentary hint at labor strife and financial troubles—including a 1996 walkout and a 2004 close call—that weren't dealt with in the movie. Member David Kim notes on TV that some regional orchestras might not survive shortfalls. The TV interview, about half an hour long, goes deeper into life on the road and how the musicians relate to each other. Both also discuss how Anker put together his film. An alternate opening shows how Anker focused his picture as he went along.
A segment on the role of the conductor looks like it didn't quite fit the finished product, but check out the extended performances. There's a folksy bluegrass performance by orchestra members Jason and Zachary De Pue, a flourish-filled piano solo by guest artist Lang Lang, and an intense violin solo by guest artist Sarah Chang.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Throughout this movie, Daniel Anker's hand as a filmmaker is always evident. This was hit home when I saw the TV interview—in a bare-bones studio setting that just gave us four people talking. The interviewer brought out the passions and concerns of her subjects with little in the way of bells and whistles. This left me feeling that the movie—though certainly a beautiful, well-crafted work—was incomplete and sometimes artificial.
Music from the Inside Out doesn't provide a definitive answer to the question it poses, but it does get you thinking. Watching at home alone, though, I found myself paying more attention to the sounds and images than thinking about what music is. In a group situation—a theater, a classroom, or even a group of friends—it would be great for starting a debate on music or creativity. The official site even encourages public showings of the movie "to create a civic dialogue" and offers a curriculum guide for classroom use.
Even if civic dialogue seems ambitious, I'd call this a must-buy for music teachers who want to jump-start classroom discussions. Classical music fans—or anyone who has enjoyed an orchestra performance—will want to check this one out. Go to a theater if you get a chance; otherwise, rent or Netflix before you buy.
Music from the Inside Out isn't as dramatic as recent breakouts like March of the Penguins and Wordplay, so viewers who want to see real-life drama will be disappointed. This one provides points to ponder, but little in the way of dramatic tension.
Not guilty. It's a well-crafted film, although its philosophical style may not be your cup of tea.
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• Extended Bluegrass Performance
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