See "Playing for Change" at Tribeca Film Festival
(from brinkzine.com 5/2/08)
Last Saturday, I struggled out of bed to see a 9 a.m. press screening of "Playing for Change: Peace Through Music." I didn't expect too much of a film about street singers and I wasn't surprised that there were only a few others in the theater. As it turned out, "Playing for Change" is my favorite film of the entire Tribeca Film Festival, and probably the best concert film since "The Last Waltz." The marvelous music and the dynamic singers and musicians on screen choked me up many times and had me smiling nonstop, even tapping my feet. I only can imagine the experience of seeing this movie with a packed audience, and I urge everyone to go to the final public screening at Tribeca, Friday at 9 pm at the AMC Village VII on 11th Street and 3rd Avenue. I had the pleasure of talking to the film's amiable and visionary directors: Mark Johnson and his quiet partner Jonathan Walls.
Danny Peary: It's an uplifting movie that I would think everybody would respond to. So has anybody said to you that they didn't like it very much?
Mark Johnson: I haven't any negative responses yet. Maybe they thought that, but they didn't tell us.
DP: So in the movie basically you're walking down the street and you come across Roger Ridley singing and you were inspired to make a movie. How long after seeing him did you think that?
MJ: When I was halfway down the block and I still heard him, his belting voice behind me. I said, "My, God, that voice…" I knew I wanted to do a film with this concept and when I heard him singing I said this was the best place to start.
DP: When you say "concept," were you thinking of an international jam session, with performers in different countries singing the same songs?
MJ: The idea was to use music to connect everybody and in order to do that we knew we had to go around the world and get a mix of race, gender, economics, politics, all kinds of people. We didn't want one group playing together, but the world playing together. So I thought I'd start with someone like Roger who had everything that music is for us: perseverance, soul, and talent. Start with him and let it build off of that.
DP: And you particularly liked hearing him sing "Stand By Me."
MJ: I loved his version, but we chose that for him to sing and later "One Love" not because of the versions but the songs' messages. We had the idea that the world was going to sing together, so that's why we chose those songs. We have the world stand by each other and then later realize we have one love to share.
DP: Jonathan, did Mark convince you to make this movie?
Jonathan Walls: It didn't take much convincing. I met Mark almost ten years ago and that's when the concept was being born. I immediately latched on to it. I was living in Singapore and when Mark found financing I quit my job over there.
DP: You mentioned politics. It seems like you avoided politics in your peace movie, but it crept in anyway because of the situations a lot of these street singers live in, including countries where there is terrible poverty and perhaps political oppression.
MJ: Right. We started off with the idea to celebrate music, as with Roger Ridley singing alone, or in Spain where they sing on street to enjoy each other's company and express themselves with a crowd of onlookers. But when went to South Africa and the famous poet Lesego Rampolokeng told us that people play music there "to stay as far away from the grave as possible," which was the heaviest thing we ever heard. It occurred to us that there was a whole other side to music that we were going to start to uncover. What is politics essentially? A lot of it is rhetoric, discussions about concepts. In various parts of the world where there is struggle, sometimes it becomes politics, sometimes it becomes conversation. In any case, our point was to show in South Africa perseverance—thousands of people marching down the street singing did more than guns or tanks did for South Africa. There is politics involved, but music supersedes politics. In our opinion, it goes right to the human part of the conflicts. So when we went to meet musicians in Northern India, to Dharmsala, where the Dalai Lama lives with the Tibetan refugees, it wasn't that we wanted to include politics. But they started saying things like music is the "best weapon" for them to free Tibet. Again there's politics but music superseding it. Here they're trying to find a peaceful way of inspiring the planet to come together and help them with their struggle. We didn't cause the struggle and didn't pick a side. We just there observing what was going on and documenting it.
DP: There are slight differences in why the people in your film play music.
MJ: We did notice the different reasons people played music in different parts of the world. Some play for spiritual reasons, some celebration, some enlightenment, and some to stay as far away from the grave as possible. As one musician in South Africa says, "Music just makes you feel everything is all right, even when it isn't all right." That hit us pretty hard because these people are playing music because that's all they got left, and through the music they get a lot of life and a lot of energy to persevere.
DP: I would say that the major theme of the movie is that as long as there is music, there is hope.
JW: Yeah, it's about connecting everyone.
DP: Even the people who have nothing, have a song.
MJ: Right, but I tell you one thing that's interesting—they would change your perception of what "nothing" is. I know a lot of people who have everything in terms of wealth and material items but they had one shred of the happiness like I see on the faces of these kids who are in the ghetto with nothing but music. So what does it mean to have anything? That's one thing you learn in the film. Having something is about being inspired. With inspiration, you have possessions.
DP: Did these people inspire you?
JW: Yeah, and they give me a sense of hope about the future of the planet. To see how music played a major part in overcoming Apartheid, you understand the power of music.
DP: Some of your singers and musicians talk about how they play music to reach God. That's Beethoven's concept. Yet the theme of the music is how music helps us reach other people. So it's all-encompassing. That's why all of us who know music believe music is universal. We all know that.
MJ: What I didn't know is when one guy said, "Whenever there is great art, there is always heaven." To me, that was a deep comment. Because a lot of people look for that when we're done with this life, yet they remind us that it's right here in this life.
DP: You said you sent out DVDs to all the participants. I bet nobody said that's exactly the film they thought it would be. I bet they all said, now I understand what you're talking about. Because I can't explain this movie.
MJ: Yeah, they definitely thought we were crazy at the time and later loved it.
DP: When you were trying to get financing, did you have a hard time explaining the film?
MJ: Yes, I did. A lot of documentaries run on the steps-process of raising money. It's not as efficient but that's the way it goes. You raise enough to be able to prove to people that what you're doing is going to make sense. And when they see it, they'll give you a little bit more. And when they see it again and it still makes sense, they give you a little bit more.
DP: Was it part of the original concept that everything is shot outdoors and never in a studio?
MJ: Outdoors or in the subways. The idea was to record where there was no separation between music and people. There would be no stages, no recording studios where you close doors, just the opportunity for whoever is walking by to hear it and be effected.
DP: Another good choice you made was to not have subtitles when singers didn't sing in English. You probably debated about what to do.
MJ: There was a debate. But there's nothing like being able to make up your own meaning for things. For example, classical music having no lyrics and enables you to create an entire soundscape in your head. I had a music teacher in college who said, "The value of music without lyrics is one of the most powerful things in the world." Because it simply speaks to the senses and is a pure aesthetic. As soon as a lyric gets involved, it has a specific story.
DP: A lot of your movie is about emotion, and when you aren't distracted by subtitles you see the passion which these performers have. You don't really need lyrics to tell they're excited.
MJ: Right, I think so, too.
DP: Keb' Mo' I've heard of. Should I know these other singers?
MJ: Manu Chao has sold millions of CDs around the world and is sort of a music revolutionary. He was in Barcelona, and having him involved with the film was amazing because he could have been selling out stadiums in Europe. He sort of observed us. He looked like a homeless guy in a hood sweatshirt, just watching us. He said, "You know what? I like what these guys are doing. I'll play right now." We knew when we could inspire a guy like Manu Chao, we would be in good shape.
JW: Vusi Mahlasela is pretty well known in South Africa. He is known as "The Voice," and he had a major role in ending Apartheid.
MJ: He was the South African artist of the year in 2007. So those are the three most famous singers in the film.
DP: I was struck by that beautiful Israeli singer Tula. What a voice!
MJ: What a voice! She sings on the street, she sings in clubs. She's not known at all. She's young and gorgeous and has an amazing spirit.
DP: The other voice that stunned me was Grandpa Elliott.
MJ: Grandpa reminds me of Papa Staples. He has the same energy and the same wisdom and the same ability to heal through music. His success is that every little kid and every elderly person, white and black, in New Orleans knows who he is. When they walk by, they say hello. He is a cornerstone of the city. During Katrina, when no one was out there, Grandpa was out there every day singing. He is famous in his world.
DP: Talk about your decision to put in spiritual people, the ones who played for God.
MJ: We included the group Sur Sudha from Kathmandu, Nepal. They're known as "the Beatles of Nepal" and play for large audiences and kings all over Asia and are really the representation of Nepalese music. The reason we went to Nepal is because it has Hindus and Buddhists playing together, and you get a certain, unique style of music when that happens that you wouldn't get in India where it's Hindu, or China or other parts of Asia where it's Buddhist.
DP: You filmed in numerous locations, but why not Brazil and Jamaica?
MJ: Brazil would have been a dream-come-true. It is one of the most unbelievable musical places in the world. We will definitely go there on the next project. We do have musicians from the Congo and a lot of music from Brazil comes from there. At least we have the origin of the rhumba and other music in our film. And while we don't go to Jamaica, the musicians perform Bob Marley's "One Love." Jamaica would have been unbelievable, too, and that's one reason this project can never end. Too many people don't have their countries represented. They have a right to ask why their country isn't there?
DP: So did you have some great characters who you had to throw out because they weren't such great singers?
JW (laughing): Yeah, there were a few of those.
MJ: Yeah, we definitely had some of those. Originally we would have kept them, but as the bar for quality kept rising, it made them stand out even more. We wanted to inspire everybody and if we left some of that in, people weren't going to feel the same passion for the music. You will be able to find those rejected musicians on the movie's web site.
DP: Among all these people, who really got to you?
MJ: For me it was the Exile Brothers. I was terrified of the type of music we were going to get in Tibet. I worried it wouldn't translate to Western listeners and it was a style that wouldn't work in the film. It turned out they'd been left two CDs in their village—"Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd and "Howlin' Wolf." That's how they came up with their sound. And we heard guitars and harmonicas and djembe drums being played in the Himalayan Mountains as they sang their freedom songs. The excitement of being able to include something so far off and exotic just left me speechless. It was just a dream.
DP: What was your division of duties?
JW: Mark would focus more on the music side and I'd work with our cinematographer, Kevin Krupitzer, on setting up the shots. Creatively, we spent a lot of time together in the editing room. In coming up with questions, ideas, and themes we'd talk about to the musicians, we'd do it collectively. In the shooting process, Mark would set up the microphones to make sure that was in order and Kevin and I'd work with the cameras.
DP: And did you have a scout searching for musicians?
MJ: That was me, and Jon. Often there was no time for scouting. We'd just bring our stuff with us in case something happened. We would walk around, be introduced to various musicians, and be ready to set up.
DP: You used multiple screens when you'd add musicians to your "jam." It really works well. Was that part of how you envisioned the visuals?
JW: Yeah. There were so many musicians and we tried to get as many of them as we could on the screen at one time. To see them all at once on the screen shows what a feat this was.
DP: You can have seven or eight people performing and it's like a super group.
MJ: On "Stand by Me" and "One Love," we had over thirty-five musicians. We used the split screen so everyone in the crowd would know what was happening.
DP: How did you keep the tempo the same?
MJ: On "Stand by Me," Roger has a little boom box behind him playing his own background singing, so he has his time down perfectly. Everybody would listen to his tempo. On the other three songs we used a metronome.
DP: It's great seeing singing groups in Africa using headphones so they could sing along.
MJ: What was amazing is that a lot of times we didn't have enough headphones, so they'd have to share them. They had never used headphones before. I had found an arranger in South Africa who is in the Zulu choir and he took us to a little shack on top of a mountain and they had been rehearsing their parts on "Stand by Me." They had created the Zulu parts for the song sand I was touched by their effort. They had no recording studio, no technology, just a little tape deck.
DP: I loved that you took the time and used ample footage to show little kids listening to the music, often dancing along, always smiling.
MJ: For Jonathan and me, the eyes of the children are why this film had to happen. When you make a film like this, you get beat down all the time. So many things go wrong, so many hard situations develop, but you remember those kids and say, "I am not going to let these kids down." It's easy to not help people you never see, but when you see them you have to make a conscious decision about what you're going to do. We kept bring up those little kids as the symbol because we want to leave this world a better place for them.
DP: And they're the ones who are going to continue playing the music.
DP: You've produced music in your past.
MJ: I've recorded music for Keb' Mo', Los Lobos, Jackson Browne… Jackson Browne is a huge part of this project. He gave us a lot of locations to go to and a lot of support along the way.
DP: Do you have a new project?
MJ: We have started a project called "From Pieces to Peace." It started initially with countries in conflict with each other singing songs together. So we'd have Israeli and Palestinian children singing songs together and with musicians from Zimbabwe, the Congo, South Africa. It's no longer going to only be countries in conflict but that will be a thread through the film, where the theme is that through music we can overcome all of our struggles. If nothing else the music will inspire people to care more about each other.
That was our intention. We've started that already and it will be in High Definition. Then the spin-off of this movie is the Playing for Change Foundation. We're going to continue traveling the world building music schools for kids and giving them recording equipment and cameras to people from all over the world can log on the computer and watch them perform. That will get rid of the distance, and people will be more inclined to help one another. The idea is to build a movement around the world of music. This idea came during the process of making the film, seeing all these people giving us so much love. They gave us everything they had, so we knew we had to give something back. So we'd ask people everywhere we went, "What can we do to help you?" It can be a music school, a creative writing school—for northern India and the Tibetan refugee centers, it's new beds, blankets, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and enough money for each refugee to eat for six months. We want to inspire more and more people to get involved.