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Downtown Express
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by Lybarger

"Now, I know why movies added sound."
4 stars

‘Downtown Express’ is a charming, if somewhat familiar, movie that becomes extraordinary because it has astonishingly good music. Director David Grubin has spent most of his long career making documentaries like his terrific ‘The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer.’ His new feature winds up being a treat because he has a skill that has eluded most of his contemporaries: casting.

The two leads, Philippe Quint and Nellie McKay, are ideally suited to play their roles. They’re also both amazing musicians, even if each specializes in different genres. It’s so much more gratifying watching the two of them play knowing that they could indeed pull it off in person.

If the film’s combination of music, romance and immigration issues is reminiscent of “Once,” “Downtown Express” thankfully retains the traits that worked in the previous film. The New York setting is another plus. The live music scene there is amazing, and you don’t have to attend a concert hall to hear it.

Quint plays a Julliard student violinist named Sacha who earns pocket money with his father Vadim (Michael Cumpsty) playing in New York subways. If life for the two was challenging in Russia, it’s only marginally less so in the States.

Musicians have a right to play in the subways, but getting people to pay and keeping away from overzealous cops are a challenge. For Sacha and his family and friends, there’s the added challenge of being sure that INS doesn’t find out they’re in the country after their visas have expired.

There’s no question Sacha has the skill to make it in the classical world. He wouldn’t be going to Julliard otherwise. Instead, he has to deal with Vadim’s loving but intrusive manner. Vadim frequently interrupts his son’s rehearsals with Sacha’s accompanist Marie (Carolyn McCormick), making the latter thoroughly annoyed.

If dealing with his father’s lofty expectations weren’t enough, Sacha develops a fondness for the sounds of other buskers he hears, even if they aren’t heading to Julliard. One band, Downtown Express, has him captivated from the get go. He’s especially drawn to their keyboardist and singer Ramona (Nellie McKay). While she initially resents Sacha’s intrusions at one of her gigs, the two discover they play well together, even when they put their instruments down.

Switching from docs to a format like romantic comedy, Grubin appears to be doing nothing because the proceedings look so spontaneous. Quint and McKay, who has acted on stage, have an easy report, and in many ways seem more believable because their accents don’t have a Hollywood polish. His Russian-tinged English, and her thick New York drawl make their dialogue sound more like a real conversation.

Of course, it’s great that they can also play so well. Michael Bacon, Kevin’s brother, has come up with material that suits both of them, and it’s too bad the soundtrack isn’t readily available. Fortunately, the rest of the film still works.

Grubin and screenwriter Kathleen Cahill come up with some intriguing developments as the story progresses, and they wisely hold off on indicating how Sacha and Ramona will fare in the future. As Grubin’s camera wanders through the Big Apple, it’s astonishing how many talented performers are playing in the streets. At least, this film is a partial testament to what they can do.

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originally posted: 04/19/12 15:11:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Vail Film Festival For more in the 2012 Vail Film Festival series, click here.

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