Judge Katie Herrell will get you my pretty...and your little dog too!
"This isn't about putting on a play, this is about life."
Get the Kleenex ready. While Yellow Brick Road won't render you a quivering mass of snot—the story, the "kids," are much too dignified for that—you will need something to alternately dab your eyes and trap your guffaws.
Facts of the Case
This documentary follows the drama arm of the Long Island ANCHOR (Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps Through Organized Recreation) Organization as they prepare and perform "The Wizard of Oz."
The initial graphics worried me. A garish yellow brick road extends off the screen with a dancing, sparkling, ruby red, slipper offering the various routes. The cliched sentiment is offered on the website (yellowbrickroadmovie.com) as well, but there the colors are more muted and echo the excellent DVD packaging, which is made excellent by powerful movie stills.
Then the opening credits roll and we are introduced to David. As he offers his rendition of "If I Only Had a Heart," his Coke-bottle glasses and wide-spaced, moderately bucked teeth are immediately endearing, because their purpose is to smile and little else. Cut to a whistling, whimsical flute tune and eye-level shots of vibrant paints being applied to a canvas and the tone of the movie is set.
The lilting music continues throughout the film—a hidden pied piper clamoring behind the actors, "The Wizard of Oz actors," as they come and go from various activities. At times the music is punctuated by a xylophone or the plunking keys of a piano, but always it carries on.
Next we meet the entire cast and crew as parts are assigned in an anywhere auditorium. The Long Island-accented director, Sandy Braun, runs her play like any other—with tough love. In one-on-one interviews with Sandy, nestled in a home-like setting away from the stage, away from ANCHOR, she talks candidly about her "kids," although they are all undeniably adults in age. Sandy's attitude throughout the movie is always caring, but never pitying or indulgent. When the Scarecrow misses a practice, she vehemently promises to kick him out of the play if his truancy continues. When the Wicked Witch of the West bumbles her lines repeatedly, Sandy asks if she's been drinking. It may sound harsh and insensitive, but she's real world to these kids…and they love her for it.
Between stills of water fountains and popcorn poppers—and other staples of everyday life easily overlooked—there are four basics elements of this documentary: rehearsals; interviews; silent (except for the music) shots of the kids coming and going, some in wheelchairs, some with canes, and some just moving a bit loquaciously; and the one-night only performance.
It is the interviews and the silent shots that really fill out this narrative. Never once do the actors appear depressed by their lot in life. During the home interviews, we see them proudly display their collection of playbills and DVDs—the accouterments of any aspiring actor. Through Sandy, we learn that many of these "kids" have more problems than just their disabilities—absent parents, surgeries, etc.—but the kids themselves never dwell on their hardships; they just trudge onward to their next rehearsal.
My only grievance with Yellow Brick Road is the presentation of the actual performance. Obviously time and creative-whatever prevent the filmmakers from showing the entire play. Instead, chronological excerpts are flashed on the screen, some silent and some speaking (the iconic Oz scenes mainly), with a black out in-between. During this montage the lute-like music builds and builds; the Pied Piper has found a street band and they are all crashing into the theatre. It's an obvious culmination of months of hard work, but in a way it's a bit of a short change for the viewer. Throughout the entire film the filmmakers worked hard to portray multiple sides of their disabled cast, and now, in the casts' shining moment, they've been marginalized to snapshots—just like they are marginalized so frequently in day-to-day society.
During the curtain call, as proud Munchkins and witches and wizards huddle together on stage, a maudlin version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" weighs down the happiness. This is the only time I disliked the music throughout the entire film. I rather hoped for Hawaiian Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's (IZ) version of the timeless song myself.
In the special features we do get a longer look at the actual play. The kids travel to the movie theatre to watch the video-taped performance of themselves. But by then I'd already seen all the "important" excerpts.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My complaints about the final scenes, do not deter from my overall feeling of awe; in fact, I allow the final scenes as a creative indulgence on the part of the filmmakers. Filmmakers who used subtle metaphorical imagery throughout the entire movie to show how so many everyday things can be taken for granted.
And as much as I tapped my toes to the soundtrack, if that were the soundtrack for my life, and my ups and my downs, Mr. Piper would have been in a world of hurt before intermission.
Not since Mad Hot Ballroom have I been so inspired by performance art, documentaries, and people in general.
Guilty over the rainbow.
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