'Talent Has Hunger': Film Review

First Run Features
A master class in the art of teaching artists.

Documentarian Josh Aronson followed a master cellist and four of his students over a seven-year period.

For anyone who thought that Whiplash was realistic, Josh Aronson’s new documentary might be a letdown. A clear-eyed and engrossing celebration of music and how it’s taught, the film offers compelling evidence that mastery of an instrument doesn’t require submission to abuse. Paul Katz, the even-tempered cello instructor at the center of Talent Has Hunger, gently pushes his students to practice, practice, practice, and he does so by inspiring their passion, intellect and creativity. 

Aronson, whose feature documentaries include Orchestra of Exiles and the Oscar-nominated Sound and Fury, tracked the progress of four of Katz’s students over seven formative years. The resulting chronicle is less concerned with individual achievement than with teacher-pupil dynamics and the uniting force of cello love. 

Vibrato and glissando get their due, but the intimate film is no inside-baseball wonk fest. With a straightforward elegance that echoes that of Katz, it speaks not just to musicians or classical fans but anyone who cares about mastering a skill. Arts-oriented broadcasters are a natural venue for the picture, which is headed for a brief theatrical playdate in Los Angeles after a string of music-festival and museum bookings. 

A key strength of the doc, and one that sets it apart, is that for both Katz and his students, Aronson isn’t interested in psychological portraits except as functions of the music lessons. The pedagogical spark is the potent heart of the matter. An ultra-brief précis of Katz’s quarter-century as a founding member of the Cleveland Quartet is the film’s only factoid-dispensing moment; when it comes to his biography, it’s his relationships with mentors, all of them renowned cellists, that count. A few minutes of screen time for one pupil’s mother is the closest we get to the home life of anyone in the film. 

That student, Lev Mamuya, is only 10 when he first travels to Boston to study with Katz at the New England Conservatory of Music. While hyper-articulate teenage students dissect the finer points of technique, attitude and emotion, Mamuya responds to Katz’s instruction mainly with wide-eyed nods of assent. Like the other musicians, he came to the instrument at a tender age, giving his first solo concert at 5. Sebastian Baverstam, who struggles with the “practice” part of the equation, was a toddler when his cello infatuation began; for Nicholas Canellakis, the love story started after he saw Yo-Yo Ma on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

The student who makes the most vivid impression, Emileigh Vandiver, stresses the importance of her relationships with teachers, and speaks longingly of passing on what she’s learned and becoming part of that legacy. In one of the film’s final sequences, she’s not only fulfilling that goal but offering her grade-school-age students a tip that we first heard from Katz. 

Sharing DP duties with Brian Dowley, Aronson observes the lessons, exams and recitals from a close range, with a deep affinity for the players and the oral tradition they’re keeping alive. Looking backward as well as to the future, Aronson places Katz in a lineage, following him on visits with two of his teachers, one of whom was a disciple of Pablo Casals

There are sometimes tough words of feedback, but no histrionics on display. In its understated way, Talent Has Hunger — which takes its title from a phrase that Katz uses compellingly — captures the flesh-and-blood, life-shaping power of arts instruction, and the way the eager student becomes a vessel for accumulated expertise and wisdom. Discussing a piece with Katz 30 years after studying with him, the accomplished musician Pieter Wispelwey recalls, “I remember which notes you wanted me to play better.”

Distributor: First Run Features
Production company: Aronson Film Associates
Director-producer: Josh Aronson
Executive producers: Nancy Lubin, Richard Lubin
Directors of photography: Josh Aronson, Brian Dowley
Editor: Mark Juergens

Not rated, 82 minutes