Broken-Orchestra_Sundance-2020_lead_1

Director: Charlie Tyrell
Section: Documentary Shorts Program

I’m just trying to put myself in director Charlie Tyrell’s head. I want to make a short film. I find the perfect subject. A bittersweet real-life story – tragic and uplifting at once. It has children, compassionate adults and music. It needs to be told as is. It needs to be non-fiction. Nothing like a short social documentary about a hidden gem of an event.

Get this: Between 2007 and 2017, the budget of art programs in Philadelphia public schools was cut by more than 60 percent. Music – being one of the more expensive artforms – is worst affected. Thousands of unrepaired instruments are retired. Suddenly, music stops becoming an option for the kids of one of America’s biggest and poorest cities. The adults take charge. Over 400 people from various walks of life launch a project called Symphony for a Broken Orchestra. They raise awareness and funds for the issue by playing a concert…with broken instruments. They squeeze out sounds so that the city can hear – loud and clear. The ovation is huge. Donations are huger. The shattered cellos and trumpets can finally be repaired. Children receive their “gifts”. The healing has begun. It’s only the beginning.

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All I need to do now is tell this lovely story. But the concert is over. All I have is talking heads – musicians, teachers, volunteers, innovators, audience members – and their memories of the project. Interviews. Many of them. So what do I do? Simply let them speak and make us smile at the ingenuity of this community, right? Most filmmakers might have been more than satisfied recreating the concert through anecdotes and live music. Through heroes and their thinking caps. It’s a powerful-enough tale on its own. A winner.

Between 2007 and 2017, the budget of art programs in Philadelphia public schools was cut by more than 60 percent. Music – being one of the more expensive artforms – is worst affected.  

But Charlie Tyrell is different. After all, his last short doc was called My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes. Just as the Symphony turned their performance into an artful advertisement of a recessive crisis, the filmmaker turns this film into a sensory advertisement of their story. Sample the setting: A camera snakes its way through a high-school – from corridors to classrooms to gymnasiums – from one talking head to another. It is designed as a relay of versatile and warm voices. The clincher: No humans were harmed during the making of this film. The school is deserted. Each of these people appear as images on different television sets. There’s a TV set – wiry paraphernalia and all – featuring an interview every time the camera pans to a new corner of the building. Dozens of TV sets. Not slick LED or LCD screens, but the old-school box sets that most art classes use to play instructive videos. The symbolism is surreal and haunting.

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As they describe the buildup to the concert, the background score is broken and incoherent, like a concert of stray notes squabbling to find a pitch. This is how it must have sounded. It immediately smooths into a rhythm – a normal symphony orchestra – once the resolution of repaired instruments is reached. Put together, the effect of this arrangement ranges from madly metaphorical (the cause and the effect, past and future, playing out simultaneously in one location) to carefully creepy (a zombified high-school with a radioactive video library).

This innovative interplay of form and messaging can be a little disorienting. At times, the narrative gimmickry feels so audacious that it distracts from the essence of the words being spoken. I was so charmed by the elaborate, almost post-apocalyptic, setup that I may have blanked out on some of the snippets. The daring style almost drowns out the film’s inherent sentimentality. Either way, Broken Orchestra takes the risk and quite literally – like an irreverent painting that captures the soul of its subject – channels the socio-cultural situation of a city relocating the sound of music. I tried to put myself in director Charlie Tyrell’s head. I’m sort of glad I couldn’t. 

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