Wade on Birmingham

Sidewalk 2009: How do you get to Bass Hall?


Movie review: ‘They Came to Play’

By Kenn McCracken

Review at a glance: One of the most inspiring documentaries in Sidewalk history, “They Came to Play” puts on a virtuoso show of amateur pianists battling and bewitching at the Van Cliburn competition.

They Came to Play

Birmingham ophthalmologist Drew Mays practices his
piano pieces at home in a scene from “They Came to Play.”

Wade on Birmingham - Sidewalk Moving Picture FestivalNot every gifted player makes more than a hobby of their playing.

You meet such amateur artists in “They Came to Play,” a documentary about participants in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. An inspirational film that showcases amazing talent and a variety of characters, it does an excellent job of showing that not every classical pianist is the same.

The movie screens Sunday at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.

What makes this so spectacular is director Alex Rotaru’s framing of the competition and construction of the narrative. Ninety minutes pass quickly, and the competitors he focuses on are introduced in a natural progression. Among them is Drew Mays, an ophthalmologist at Birmingham’s Veterans Administration Medical Center and the director of the UAB School of Medicine residency program.

The film shows more than just the performance and practice sides of its subjects, but never strays so far that you feel it has lost focus. The competitors are so varied — in age, playing background, professional lives and especially personalities — that it’s hard even as a music fan to decide which is more entertaining, the pieces or the people.

The components are equally strong: gorgeous cinematography, seamless editing, and an absolutely astonishing sound mix, perhaps the most important part of a music documentary. The pianos, whether onstage or at home, sound clear and enveloping.

As a musician and a sometime filmmaker, I find “They Came to Play” is a documentary I’ve been waiting to see without realizing it. While many music documentaries focus on one band or genre, this one is about music, performance and the passion that runs underneath it all.

Musicians, fans and arts patrons would be remiss in not seeing one of the best, most inspiring and uplifting documentaries in the 11-year history of Sidewalk.

Kenn McCrackenKenn McCracken (@insomniactive) is a director and an award-winning screenwriter (2005 Sidewalk Sidewrite grand prize, “Muckfuppet”).

He’s also a writer (Birmingham Weekly, Spin.com, mental_floss), a bassist for the Exhibit(s), an eight-time cat juggling champion for Malta and an ongoing experiment in sleep deprivation. He occasionally steals your best ideas to claim at his blog, Dairy of a Madman.

“They Came to Play” will screen at 6:45 p.m. Sunday at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Video: Defining “amateur” vs. “professional”


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