From glen to glen and down the mountain side, the pipes are calling Judge Adam Arseneau.
The world's first jazz bagpipe player.
Ever heard of Rufus Harley? Something of a local oddity in Philadelphia, Harley is part gifted jazz musician, part sonic innovator, part hippie, and part kook—like Emperor Norton playing the bagpipes. A self-proclaimed ambassador of world peace, the eccentric jazz musician embraced the notions of love and harmony for all mankind via strategic application of bagpipe music, no doubt convincing people to stop fighting and start loving under penalty of playing bagpipe music in their direction.
One of many numerous jazz bagpipe players worldwide (okay, it's just him so far), Harley enjoyed a small devoted following of local fans in Philly, a large number of local observers and tourists amused by his bizarre attire and peculiar antics hanging around the Liberty Bell playing his pipes and a disproportionably large fan base in Europe and Asia. Go figure. Like some bizarre kilt-wearing love child of George Clinton and Willie Nelson, Harley experimented with music the same way he approached his attire—garishly and with little thought of convention—all the while affirming his devotion to America, love, and peace for all humans before passing away in 2006 from cancer.
Pipes of Peace is a tribute to the man in homemade, low-budget documentary form. With a scant running time of barely 50 minutes, it really acts more as an infomercial for his life, his philosophy, and his peculiar musical styles rather than an exploration of a subject. Singing naught but his praise, Pipes Of Peace presents the piper as a wholly pleasant, good-natured jolly fellow, if one totally operating on different software than normal human beings. Assembled from interviews by fellow musicians, family and friends, concert clips, and video commentary recorded by the man himself, Pipes of Peace quickly takes us through the salient points of his life, his musical development, and (most alarmingly) his world views on life, the universe, and everything.
For example, imagine if you will, a grizzled black dude with a kilt and a Viking helmet holding a small replica Liberty Bell. He reaches out a hand and taps it, making it chime, then passionately exclaims, "Freedom is ringing through the crack because the Liberty Bell represents the Mother, which is the spirituality of the Brother, which is the City of Brotherly Love!" Never breaking eye contact, he swings his wizened old man hands (and bagpipes) in your direction, demanding a reaction. But what can you say to something like that? The recipient of such a barrage would have no opportunity to do anything but nod weakly in half-hearted agreement. Who can argue with such…sound…logic?
The above (an actual Harley quote from the film) pretty much sums up the man, and to a more relevant extent, sums up Pipes of Peace as a documentary. Watching the film clips of Harley muttering his quixotic statements of love, harmony, and bagpiping into the camera, I found my hand inches unconsciously towards the telephone to call the psychiatric ward for an emergency pickup. Viewers may need to be gently reminded that that the Rufus depicted on-screen cannot not come out of the television into your living room and attack you with a broken bottle. We're talking philosophy straight out of the acid tent at Woodstock here.
All jokes aside, Harley seems like a genuinely sweet guy, a total hippie living a bohemian existence playing the jazz scene throughout the sixties and seventies, making a name for himself in equal measure for his eccentricities and his surprising musical talent. Make no mistake: the dude can blow something fierce. He may act crazy, but he has the melodic chops to back up his dementia, collaborating with numerous artists on the pipes as well as on saxophone throughout the years. Although many might consider bagpipe music a sonic experience reserved for the elevators in the lower levels of Hell (this reviewer included) Harley's music is quite unique and, dare I say it, almost enjoyable. Musically, his sound is a freeform wailing and improvisational attack of horns that sound like spaced-out synthesizers from some lost Sun Ra record from the 1960s. Eschewing any traditional application of the instrument, Harley coaxes out some pretty wild and radical interpretations of jazz staples and standards. His fans are small in number, but they number; during the early sixties and seventies he was actually selling a surprising number of records for a jazz artist, to say nothing about bagpipe artist sales figures, which exist in decimal and fraction format only.
This DVD is as low-budget as you get. It has the look and feel of a film shot on handheld camera, assembled from archived footage collected from family and friends of Harley and edited together on a home computer—which is probably exactly how it was made. A strictly independent film venture, we can excuse the bare-bones presentation here, a simple full-frame presentation with moderate fidelity, stereo soundtrack, and no extras or supplements.
Was Rufus Harley an eccentric genius or a novelty act? His insane outfits, his pseudo-mystical blabbering, and his complete lack of pants disconcertingly speak to the latter, and the average passerby would be hard-pressed not to flee in terror from him on the street—or at the very least, throw him a dollar and then hurriedly cross to the other side. Past all the eccentricities, Pipes of Peace paints the man as a kind, gentle fellow; a musical genius with nothing but love and kindness in his heart for the world. He might be a bit crazy, but it takes a brave man to pick up a set of bagpipes and call it jazz.
Although the subject of the film may be interesting or at least clinically fascinating, as documentaries go, Pipes of Peace is dull as drain water, serving its function with little fanfare, deviation, or enjoyment for audiences. The film is short and to the point, and probably runs exactly the right length before one would get annoyed by the bagpiping and shut the thing off in frustration—which is to say, 30 minutes shorter than the average feature-length documentary. That should pretty much sum things up. Viewers will no doubt gain insight into Harley as a person and as a musician, and appreciate his small but unique place in musical history—but I got that much off the packaging material of the DVD. It says so right on the front.
While there is an admitted attraction to seeing a dude rock out the bagpipes in jazz draped in the American flag and wearing gigantic Viking horns, the music and world view of Rufus Harley are acquired tastes to say the least. As low-budget documentaries go, Pipes of Peace is tolerable, but I struggle to imagine anyone actually wanting to watch the film based solely on its merits of capturing the life of a bagpipe-playing jazz musician.
Then again, video stores rarely stop drunken people from renting DVDs. If they did, I speculate they would be out of business pretty fast.
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