'Bela Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto': Film Review

Bela Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto - H 2014
Courtesy of Argot Pictures

Bela Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto - H 2014

A moving portrait of a prominent musician challenging himself both personally and artistically

Bela Fleck and Sascha Paladino's documentary chronicles the musician's yearlong struggle to compose a banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra

Musician Bela Fleck is a widely acknowledged virtuoso banjo player and has won no fewer than 15 Grammys. But he emerges as a touchingly insecure, self-deprecating figure in the documentary he co-directed with Sascha Paladino. Chronicling the yearlong process of composing a banjo concerto to be performed by him and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Bela Fleck: How to Write a Banjo Concerto, recently featured at DOC NYC, should prove inspirational to struggling musicians of all stripes.

Fleck has long experimented with stretching his instrument's musical vocabulary, but this ambitious venture was particularly daunting considering that he had no previous experience in creating orchestral music, no formal training in classical composition or orchestration, and no ability in reading and writing standard musical notation. He nonetheless took on the challenge of creating the piece dubbed "The Imposter," in a reference to the banjo seeming out of place amid the traditional orchestral instruments. And it was all done in front of ever-present cameras.

"The worry is that it might be considered some big hoedown concerto and not a serious concerto," he admits early on. Throughout the process his self-doubts are palpable, amusingly rendered via such onscreen thought bubbles as "I suck" and "I want to kill myself."

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The venture also reveals a personal side of the musician named after composer Bela Bartok. His parents separated when Fleck was just a year old, and he didn't meet his father again until his forties. Composing the piece thus became emotionally cathartic as well as an musically challenging endeavor.

Seriously stressed out during the process, he turned to friends and family for support, resulting in cameo appearances by the likes of musicians Chick Corea, Marcus Roberts, Zakir Hussain and frequent collaborator Edgar Meyer, as well as his stepfather, Joe Paladino, who introduced him to chamber music at a young age, and his wife, Abigail Washburn, a notable singer/banjo player in her own right. A looming presence throughout is legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs, Fleck's primary inspiration, who attended the concert shortly before his death in 2012 and to whom the piece is dedicated.

Counting down the days leading to the premiere, the film has its suspenseful moments, such as when Fleck struggles to master the cadenza designed to show off his virtuosic playing in the concerto's climax.

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It all culminates with generous excerpts of the piece's premiere featuring the orchestra at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which seems to go remarkably well. But even this success doesn't fully mollify Fleck. "I played it perfectly a lot, but not always onstage," he comments immediately afterwards.

Bela Fleck: How to Write a Piano Concerto is rough-hewn in its execution, and its efforts to inject personal drama into the proceedings occasionally feel strained. But despite its obviously self-promotional aspects it ultimately emerges as a both moving and joyous portrait of a talented musician intent on challenging himself and growing mightily in the process.

Production: Argot Pictures
Directors: Sascha Paladino, Bela Fleck
Screenwriter/producer: Bela Fleck
Editors: Bela Fleck, Amanda Laws

No rating, 96 minutes