The Music Lesson (Virginia Galloway, 2009): USA

Reviewd by Collier Grimm. Viewed at the 2009 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. 

 In Virginia Galloway’s documentary, The Music Lesson, a hand held camera crew follows a group of Boston teens as they embark on a journey to Laikipia, Kenya. The film focuses on the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, their director, and the life-changing cultural exchange they experience while in Africa. The teens are presented as smart and musically gifted students who lack emotional attachment and passion for the music they play. As a result these students have no sense of rhythm, or personal attachment to the music. Their director decides they must be immersed in a completely new way of listening to, thinking about, and playing music.

In Laikipia, Kenya students learn about music from their elders. Music is passed down through the generations; you might call it oral tradition. These kids make all of their own instruments, never having once sight read or looked at music written on the page. Instead they search their souls for a beat, and can listen to a song just once before singing, dancing, or playing it back exactly the same.

Back in Boston the Youth Symphony Orchestra has experienced a vastly different method of musical training where technique triumphs over emotion. A method their director realizes is more of a technical error. With little support from the Boston kids families, an upper-middle class set that fears their children will discover nothing but new diseases, a select few from the orchestra are off to Laikipia.

The film blends images of classical instruments into match-cuts and dissolves of the African countryside. This technique creates fluidity between two vastly opposing images and sets the stage for the final blending of cultures we expect at the end.  The director has also incorporated tons of close-ups, faces of both groups of teens who experience a strong emotional response from the music. This in turn works to create a strong emotional response from the audience. In documentary filmmaking if you want to get an audience and create an emotional attachment to your film, you’ve got to have kiddies in your picture. Galloway’s no rookie.

There is also a reality TV show aspect to the film. The director has incorporated confessional-like sequences as the Boston and Laikipia students describe their daily activities, and the emotional impact this experience is having on them.

Both cultures find that they are able to learn from each other through the power of music, and make lasting impressions on one another. By the end of the film as the Laikipia students wave goodbye, they all seem to have acquired Abercrombie and Fitch clothes and Boston baseball caps. The film is touching but not ground breaking. We’ve heard the story dozens of times before, be it the blending of cultures through music, sports, or their favorite video game the end is always the same. Everyone involved has walked away with a life-changing experience and we, the audience, are expected to feel included in the breakthrough. Well, for a lot less money you could watch Oprah.

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