J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

DOC NYC ’14: Bela Fleck How to Write a Banjo Concerto

Mozart wrote his first symphony at the precocious age of eight, but Béla Fleck would probably be most impressed by the fact he wrote it without the help of the Sibelius composition program. Of course, Mozart did not pen much for a banjo soloist, leaving the field open for Fleck. Fans will watch him wrestle long and hard with a high profile symphonic commission in Sascha Paladino & his banjo virtuoso brother’s Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Fleck had previously co-written extended symphonic work with classical bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zukir Hussain, but “The Impostor” would be his first solo composition. Basically, Fleck holes up during a few short sabbaticals, grinding it out with the help of Sibelius. For the most part, he tries to tune out the advice of Meyer, his classical “big brother” and his wife, clawhammer player Abigail Washburn. Frankly, the doc makes the composition part look easy. The hard part is going from Sibelius to a flesh and blood symphony orchestra.

It is interesting to watch Fleck tinker with the concerto based on feedback during rehearsals. We also see some of the informational interviews he conducted with the Nashville Symphony’s section principals. It seems like he was looking to incorporate the sort of things they like to play, which is probably a winning strategy to keep the orchestra on his side.

Yes, Fleck will feel the stress, with the premiere date fast approaching and the concerto not exactly set in stone. However, there are plenty of backstage documentaries that deliver far more emotional oomph (Every Little Step, for instance). Despite the presence of Fleck’s big name friends who periodically pop in to offer moral support, including Steve Martin, Marcus Roberts, the late Earl Scruggs (to whom the film is co-dedicated), and Chick Corea (who never once mentions Scientology), it is hard to see Concerto as a proper theatrical documentary. Rather, it has the vibe and heft of a free digital download bundled with his Deutsch Grammophon album.

If anyone in the film actually refers to the piece by its title, “The Impostor,” it sure is easy to miss. Regardless, Fleck & Paladino never sketch out the rudimentary narrative underpinning it. There just seems to be an assumption viewers are already fairly up to speed on major Fleck projects. Throughout Concerto, he seems likable and remarkably easy-going, all things considered, and only a fool would deny his dazzling technique. Nevertheless, the neurotic thoughts we see scribbled across the screen John Madden-style quickly become an annoying device.

As impressive as Fleck’s musical accomplishments are, Concerto is rather lightweight cinema. While nowhere near as hollow as Kevin Spacey’s recent vanity doc, it is still not as musically satisfying as Fleck and Paladino’s previous feature documentary, Throw Down Your Heart (after all, we hear more of “The Impostor” as played by Sibelius than the Nashville Symphony). Only recommended for die-hard Fleck fans, Béla Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto screens this Thursday (11/20), as part of DOC NYC 2014, with the composer himself scheduled to attend.

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