Rhythm Is It!

Reviewed By Jason Whyte
Posted 02/24/05 05:28:43

"So, let's play some music now!"
5 stars (Awesome)

An independent documentary from Germany about kids learning classical music and dancing at first doesn’t look like much; in fact, during last year’s Vancouver Film Festival, I booked a screening of “Rhythm Is It” simply to kill time before another screening later in the afternoon that I really wanted to see. I emerged from the screening having seen one of the best films of that festival.

“Rhythm Is It” is an experience that had an effect on me. It is a film that not only teaches the value of having arts in our schooling and the importance it can have towards children, but also how children should grow up to have an understanding of their possibilities and true potential, rather than be wrapped up in the current trends and “like, whatever” attitude that is destroying youth culture. It is also a very entertaining experience with a unique look and sound, and is a rare documentary that demands to be seen on the largest screen and best sound system possible.

The film opens on images of Berlin, set to a German rap song called “Don’t Hide!” where its beats slowly turn classical. This is where we glimpse random shots of the children that are going to be changed by the two most important talents behind the entire film: choreographer Royston Maldoom and conductor Sir Simon Rattle. Maldoom is a teacher assigned to 250 children of four different schools to learn “Le Sacred du Printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”) by Igor Stravinsky. Rattle, a Brit who has moved to Berlin to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, tries to help revitalize the arts to a sunken culture and is arranging the orchestra to do this difficult piece. Together, the talents will bring together a public performance of high school children and one of the most unforgettable pieces of music in history. Easier said than done.

The biggest challenge comes for Maldoom, who works with the high school teachers and assistants to whip these kids into shape. The kids are not only from different backgrounds, but different attitudes; many are reluctant and appear to be here simply to get out of some classes. Maldoom knows this, of course, and he tries to work with it. “Try to be silent,” Maldoom insists. “We work in silence because when we dance, we have to speak through the body. So it’s important not to let the energy go out of your mouth.”

The film looks at a few different children. There’s Marie, a cute but pimple-faced 14 year–old girl whose grades aren’t up to shape and looks at dancing as a possible future. There’s Martin, a dancer with one of the participating schools, the No Limit Studio, who loves to dance but is scared by the difficulty of the piece (one of his friends jokes that he likes the piece, but it could be used for “sampling”). There’s also Olayinka, a 15 year old who has moved to Germany from Africa hell-bent on making a change in his life. “I want to do something meaningful, to make change,” he says in his broken English.

The genius of “Rhythm Is It” is how clear its intentions are. The film moves at a precise speed, moving carefully between the learning processes of the children to Rattle’s teaching of his orchestra. It features interviews with all sides of the equation, from the teachers all the way down to the children, some of which are just terrified at the idea of dancing in public. (“I’ll probably move to the back where no one can see me!” jokes one of the children) The extended interviews with Marie, Martin and Olyainka are important, too; not only was it a wise move to choose to feature a few of the kids, but also because it offers us the experience on how all of this is affecting their lives.

One of the most important moments in the film is when all of the children finally meet Rattle’s orchestra. We’ve been seeing glimpses of the dancing and the music throughout, and we finally see the kids reacting to the music being performed by the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle himself is amazed at what is happening. “I’ve seen many dance productions of [Le Sacred du Temps], but I’ve never seen anything like this,” he tells the audience, adding, “It’s a really extraordinary thing and I’m so happy that we have the chance to do this. And it’s a very big deal.”

Directors Thomas Grube and Enrique Sanchez Lansch used a combination of High-Definition for the performance and interviews, while using digital-video for the dance instruction sequences. In a way, I’m sick and tired of seeing many poorly lit, hand-held documentaries, and the use of crisp HD to mix with the necessary smaller DV cameras (they were needed in the instructional sequences to get in close and be able to move around faster) is a revelation. The film’s unique look is also matched with the sound. The film has been mixed using the full digital-surround capabilities to make the orchestral music become a unique and important character in the film. At last year’s Vancouver Film Festival, the film was screened in one of the largest cinemas in the city, and the full impact of the digital surround was one of the best sound experiences I’ve ever had watching a film.

In the end, I’m not sure if Maldoom and Rattle have had a genuine effect on Germany’s art culture, but with this film, they have certainly struck a chord. You can not only see, but truly FEEL a difference in the attitudes of these children by the end of the film. The film’s climax of all of the elements coming together is a joy to behold, but more uplifting is the relieved cries of “We did it!” by the children afterwards. The teachers helped make the children change, and we are witnesses of the victory.

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