Tales of underdog musical success don’t get much more surprising than the one offered in Landfill Harmonic, in which Paraguayan children born into dire poverty wind up traveling the world playing instruments made of garbage. Directors Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley offer a straightforward account of this unlikely story, following as their young subjects (and the adults who made this possible) enjoy the fruits of overnight social-media stardom. Harsh reality intrudes in the story’s second half, providing a little friction in an otherwise feel-good picture without spoiling an inspirational appeal that will play well in niche bookings.
The Cateura landfill in Asuncion, Paraguay, is a truly vast dump that, we’re told, “supports” around 2,500 families. “Gancheros” spend their days picking out recyclable materials from the rotting debris, and idealistic young Favio Chavez initially came here as a technician to help the gancheros make more from their efforts.
But then he met Nicolas “Cola” Gomez, a ganchero with carpentry skills, and realized that together they might realize Chavez’s dream of giving music lessons to local kids. Cola, you see, had a knack for turning tin cans into violins. Soon, Cateura had a ragtag little “orchestra” capable of scraping out “Ode to Joy” at a local civic gathering.
We see a few charming examples of Cola’s resourcefulness; using discarded X-rays as drum heads may be the best. While we’re left wanting more (and wondering just how much of the group’s brass section he had a hand in), it’s partly because the filmmakers are more excited about what happened after that concert for locals. First they’re invited to nearby Rio, to play at a world summit; when a YouTube clip of that catches fire, everyone from NPR to 60 Minutes comes knocking. More importantly to the kids, their obsession with Megadeth pays off when the group’s David Ellefson hears about them: He visits in Paraguay and is awed, and soon the youths are playing with the band in a Denver arena.
Allgood and Townsley try to flesh out this skyrocketing-fame narrative by getting to know a couple of Chavez’s students: sweetly starstruck Ada, for instance, and Tania, who is forced to be her family’s “second mother” in the absence of their alcoholic dad. But the personal angle is most effective when, after the Recycled Orchestra hits its global stride, 2014 floods devastate their neighborhood. Cola’s workshop is destroyed; many students’ families become refugees. Though it offers no specifics about how much money the orchestra’s success might be funneling back to Cateura, the film clearly sees the nascent musicians as a source of inspiration for their troubled neighbors.
Distributor: Emerging Pictures
Production company: Hidden Village Films
Directors: Brad Allgood, Graham Townsley
Producer: Juliana Penaranda-Loftus
Executive producers: Alejandra Amarilla, Rodolfo Madero, Belle Murphy
Directors of photography: Neil Barrett, Brad Allgood
Editor: Brad Allgood
Composer: Michael Levine
Not rated, 85 minutes