The Highest Level

thehighestlevel

 

I have been wanting to watch this documentary for the last five years. The Highest Level: A Music Documentary with Lang Lang, Simon Rattle & Berliner Philharmoniker was recorded over four days in Spring 2013. I had listened to the CD recording umpteen times before Lang’s performance of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3 with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on 30 November 2013 at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The Blu-ray disc release chronicles Lang with Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Rattle, as they record the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3 in C Major and Bartok Piano Concerto No 2 in G Major. Watching this documentary is like being witness to a summit meeting of two great musicians. It gives an exclusive insight into the creation of an extraordinary recording: the preparation of the musicians, the recording sessions, the struggle to get the best sound and the post production phases. It is magnificent.

The documentary also gets up close with the musicians during rehearsals and through interviews. Lang warms up before each session by running his fingers up and down the keyboard practising his scales. He has been preparing the Prokofiev for 15 years, and the Bartok for 9 years. Both are physically demanding pieces and are unique. (Lang revealed  that the first time he injured his hand was while practising the Prokofiev Concerto. It is like a warning to whoever is playing this piece and a reminder that I should never attempt to play it.)

Lang’s energy and mastery of the two concertos is simply marvelous, sensational and fantastic! (He even confessed to Rattle that, at one point, he played a wrong note!) His fingers flying over the keyboard is the most stunning view of choreography of the hand movement! The musicians in the orchestra too, think that Lang is really a phenomenon, and it seems that he can do anything. It seems the more difficult a passage is, the happier he is. He is totally involved, and truthful in his heart.

Even Sir Rattle confessed he didn’t know if he’d “ever heard a pianist who was able to be more than just uncannily accurate in this piece (Bartok 2) and then still have the technical ability in reserve to make it dance and to make it phrase. For so many pianists, it they can do it, it’s at the end of their technical ability; with Lang Lang, if he had any more technical ability, he would be a world menace. He always has something in reserve left”. He also said: “It goes without saying it’s extraordinary difficult and virtuoso to play and it’s an amazingly splashy display piece (Prokofiev 3), as well as with many moments of delicacy and beauty. And a very, very characteristic Lang Lang piece. He plays it absolutely to the manner born. It’s his kind of music”.

The documentary also shows Lang Lang at photo shoots, posing for the cover of the CD, including a glimpse into his dressing room (where his mother is waiting with the team) and a walk to the nearby Tiergarten in Berlin to get some fresh air. He talks about how it is important for him to “just chill out a little bit” by thinking about something else, making a little contact with friends; how onstage is very important but offstage is also very important for a balanced life (easier said than done); how he never gets tired of playing music as music always rescues him and saves the moment when he feels down.

Lang Lang’s playing is without question, but the combination of energy and relaxation together, is so unusual.

 

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The Musical Brain

The power of music and its effect on the human mind is a fascinating topic for many, especially neuroscientists, exploring the gateway to the mysteries of the brain. This is a 2009 documentary where we learn, through the journey of Sting, how the brain uses music to shape the human experience. Sting (whose many songs are peppered throughout the documentary, with Message In A Bottle and Every Breath You Take played very early on) undergoes brain scans to learn how music is manifested in his brain. Also featured in the film are candid interviews with Michael Buble (whose performance of For Once In My Life was included) and Wyclef Jean, among others.

Why are certain songs so important to us? Does music make us smarter? Why do we feel like dancing when we hear a beat? (Experiments suggest that the more we respond to a piece of music by moving to it, the more we activate the pleasure circuits of the brain, which in turn stimulate the release of the feel-good hormone. There’s no one piece of music that can affect everyone in exactly the same way.) What have some well-known musicians learned about the power of music in their lives?

The connection between mood and music start early. A gentle rocking motion with soothing sounds makes a baby feel contentment, and flying through the air with happy sounds evokes the emotion of joy and excitement. We need to feel emotions in order to survive. Pleasure is nature’s way of telling us we’ve reached some equilibrium. Music is just one of the ways that the brain experiences pleasure.

Recently, scientists have discovered one great key to unlock inside the brain: music. This documentary examines the physical, psychological and emotional responses to music through a variety of tests, including one on Sting, who agrees to enter an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine to have his brain scanned. We see how Sting responds to various types of music (simple and complex), and what his musical brain reveal about him.

The ties that bind us to the music we love are not only emotional, they can be intellectual too. Music is a puzzle; the brain is a muscle, like puzzles, figuring out what’s good and what other people take as good. Babies love listening to music. Decoding the mysteries of melody, rhythm and pitch is fun for little brains that are hardwired to analyse musical sounds from birth. Every baby is a musical maestro able to anticipate the complicated structure of music and recognise familiar melodies. Playing a musical instrument involves the brain much more than just listening to music. There’s a constellation of things that are not all in one domain. All that brain activity leads to a higher intelligence overall. (Sting learnt to play the lute when he was in his 50s. The activity of the brain reflects taste in music.)

Music has been used by our ancestors to comfort one another, to form social bonds. Music has the power to shape not only our feelings but out actions as well. Humans are the only species that can synchronise their movements to music. This is what creates social bonds.

Creativity is completely human. The characteristics of a popular piece of music include isolate things like melody, harmony, beat, tempo, rhythm, octave, pitch and chord progression. Indian music is rhythmically and incredibly complex and mathmatically very very long (sequences can take place over 20 minutes).

This scientific experiment that shows the brain in the act of creation had a surprised reaction from Sting: when he listens to Bach, whom he loves, (Bach’s Cello Suite No 1 Prelude was played), he hears architecture, like massive chambers and towers and domes; he has a brain that looks like a Martian – a very uncomfortable feeling.

Music is a mystery; it doesn’t end. (Sting’s Fragile and Roxanne are played in the background.)

Batkid Begins

Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World is a 2015 documentary about how the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco came together to grant a five-year-old boy’s wish to become Batman for a day, drawing worldwide attention.

The documentary follows Miles Scott, who had fought leukemia, whose story transformed a city and transfixed a nation for a day. Thousands of vounteers came from far and near to turn San Francisco into Gotham City, while social media exploded with countless messages (including from President Obama) cheering him on.

When he was 18-months-old, a little lump was found near the right jaw of Miles. He was diagnosed as having leukemia and went into urgent care, including chemotherapy and steroids. He had treatment that lasted till he was 5 years old. His father was a 4th generation farmer and the family did not have much money. Miles liked to put on costumes, even in hospital; it gave him something to look forward to in his darker days.

Something about a boy who has cancer just struck a nerve with people – from the media, such as newpapers (eg The Chronicle & Huffington) and the radio, to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and the Apple Company; and even the composer of the Dark Knight Trilogy, Hans Zimmer who wrote the Theme for this film.

The Batkid armour was actually built by a dad for his kid as a Halloween costume, and the wardrobe/costume team from the San Francisco Opera pulled an all-nighter to get the costume ready; Miles even had Batman acrobatic lessons.

The entire Bay area (including the Golden Bridge and the Grand Hyatt Hotel) put up Batman logos; the whole Union Square was shut down for the thousands of thousands of people who turned up. Batkid whipped though San Francisco with police escort (and helicopters) in a Lamborghini (BatMobile). Everybody at the sidewalks was cheering and following the superhero and the feeling was electric and palpable.

It was a globally viewed event (eg in France, China, Japan, Germany and the UK). (Though this is something I just found out.) Miles got a little of his childhood back on this day. For the rest of his life (and for his family – parents and a brother), they’ll have this day to remember.

A Batkid Fund is launched by the family. Voluntarism is up and Batkid is cited as the reason. People seem to be kinder. In helping Miles, people are saving themselves, remembering something important: why are we not happy all the time?

Besides the theme song, there are 17 others, including Heroes, Shout, Comic Book Hero, I’ll Come Rrunning, To Make It True, Surf Down A Dream and In Our Hands – all used fittingly to enhance the atmosphere of the scenes.

 

A Ballerina’s Tale

This 2015 documentary about the incredible rise of Misty Copeland is co-produced and narrated by the ballerina herself. She made history when she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer of the legendary American Ballet Theatre (ABT). ABT was founded in the belief that they could emulate Russia and France in terms of having a world-class ballet company, performing at the Metropolitan Opera House which is considered the most important stage in the world.

The film begins with archival footage of a young Copeland. She grew up in underpriviledged communities and was introduced to ballet at 13, and there was an instant connection: she felt she belonged and finally had a voice. By 15, she was one of the top ballet prospects in California, placing first in the prestigious Spotlight Awards. At 17, she moved to New York to join ABT’s Studio Company.

Along with classical music and opera, ballet developed from the 15th century and evolved into a touchstone of European culture. There’s never been a black principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, at the Paris Opera Ballet, Kirov Ballet or New York Ballet; only 1% of all ballerinas make it into elite companies each year. In June 2015, Copeland became the first black woman to be promoted to prinicpal dancer in AMT’s 75-year history despite a devastating injury that nearly kept it from happening.

Copeland has something that just can’t be taught or learnt; she has stage presence, and such a fire and the talent to go the distance except she sometimes lacked focus and has self-doubt. It’s still very difficult to see a person of colour in major roles in the classical repertoire. Calssical ballet is based on fairy-tale stories and so there isn’t a black dancer, or someone stocky, as a fairy. Ballet looks at assimilation and uniformity – and that’s the issue for a black ballerina.

In 2012, Copeland was given a lead role in Stravinsky’s The Firebird; it was monumental and the entire dance world was agog. It was a historic evening but Copeland was dancing with a series of stress fractures in her left shin; her tolerance for pain was on a totally different level!  (Not forgetting that pointe shoes are uncomfortable and they hurt and the toes could be bleeding throught the shoes!)

Her body was beat up well too much and after The Firebird, Copeland had to have major surgery on her left shin; the surgery involved a rod that extended to her knee. The mid-tabia stress fracture was the result of impact from jumping over and over again. Imagine the amount of wear and tear in the body!

Five months after surgery, Copeland was still facing the possibility of losing an opportunity to one of the other endless talents in ABT. But six months after surgery, she successfully performed Camille Saint-Saens’ Le Cygne (The Dying Swan), and the next day, met legendary ballerina Raven Wilkinson (soloist at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo) and they did a little routine of The Ballet Ruse.

Three months later, Copeland performed Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No 4 in Italy but she suffered from a back spasm, pulled something, her sacrum felt stuck, something must be cracked and it was painful and she couldn’t breathe. Despite lingering soreness from her surgery, Copeland performed in Abu Dubai, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and Australia.

For Copeland, ballet is the stuff of human life. Her ultimate goal is to bring people of all backgraounds to ballet – people who never saw themselves inside the Metropolitan Opera House and making them feel welcome.

In the summer of 2014, ABT cast Copeland in the lead of one of the most iconic ballets in the classical repertoire: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, making her the first black woman to dance the role of Odette and Odile at an elite international company.

Besides being engrossing and inspirational, this documentary is peppered with well-choreographed dance sequences and lovely music. Some examples are Massenett’s Meditation from “Thais”, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, a Schubert String Quartet and Debussy’s Un Sonata (Allegro Vivo).

 

Steve Jobs: One Last Thing

This 2011 documentary looks at Steve Jobs through interviews with his contemporaries, people who knew him and worked with him. The segments are titled “Misfit”, “Whiz Kid”, “Entrepreneur”, “Artist”, “Buddhist”, “Innovator”, “Celebrity”, “Tyrant”, “Saviour”, “Genius”, “Visionary” and “Legacy”, revealing the different sides of this complicated character. His partnership with Steve Wozniak (and childhood friend Bill Fernandez) led to the invention of the first Apple computer. This has changed our everyday world, work, leisure and human communication.

This is a fairly intimate 60-minute portrait the life and legacy of Steve Jobs: his faults, his artistry  and his achievements – what made him the man who gave the world just “one more thing” (the infamous catchphrase when he would reveal yet another innovation in a device) and his impact on four major industries : computer, music (iTunes, iPod), movie (Pixar) and the phone (iPhone, iPad).

What if Steve Jobs had never been born? I think it would be a lot diferent, like if Thomas Edison or Wright Brothers had never been born. Our lives are different because of him and his vision. In fact, one interviewee mentioned that Jobs was probably even greater than Edison in his achievements, affecting four major strands of human achievement, whereas Edison affected only three (electricity, music, motion picture).

Bill Gates had always been fascinated by Jobs who always dominated. They had a healthy respect for each other. Gates’ Microsoft company was interwoven into Apple’s history – they were partners for a long time : the earliest Apple computers had Microsoft parts and Gates financially pulled Jobs out of bankruptcy for him (Jobs) to regain his seat in Apple. Jobs believed Microsoft stoked his ideas, Gates felt he got more credit than he might have deserved.

Jobs was diagnosed with cancer and he withdrew from public life. He  had a liver transplant and was very frail. Even when he was very weak, he loved taking walks. (This poignantly reminds me of a friend suffering from Stage 4 cancer who loved to take walks in her neighbourhood park until she was confined to a wheelchair.) He died on 5 October 2011, aged 56.

Job is not just a man who made computers; he changed the way we communicate. His legacy will transform people’s life in the future.

 

Fed Up

This is a 2014 American documentary which focuses on the causes of obesity in the US; it is a wake-up call to everyone who eats, and not just in America.

The film begins with a news report about an emerging worldwide epidermic, a threat to national security: If it doesn’t affect us directly, it will affect someone we know soon – someone in our family. The problem of obesity is getting worse; more people will die from obesity than starvation, spending in healthcare will increase, and obesity is a possible cause of cancer.

People are eating a lot of fattening things, a habit passed on for genertions. People have voracious appetites and don’t exercise enough. Eating less and exercising more is all about personal responsibility and willpower. There must be an energy balance – the calories taken in must be matched with calories out, but 160 calories in almond is not the same as 160 calories in cola.

It costs more to eat healthy. This leads to enormous implications. There is definitely a connection between heart disease and diet. Sugar is a major cause of obesity. It is dangerous to consume too much sugar, in any form. Sugar is toxin. (At this point, the song Sugar plays in the background.) It is poison and chronic; people become dose-dependent, and it is associated with diabetic and heart diseases. Sugar can be consumed naturally, like in fruits, but there’s also fibre in fruits. Diseases don’t happen with one meal but with a thousand, and there is sugar in every meal : the sugar content in processed food is so high that it can become more addictive than cocaine. Our brains are constantly hijacked as there’s junk food everywhere. This can affect health, happiness and self-esteem.

The food industry is there to make money, not to make people healthy. (Here, the song Cheese, Glorious Cheese plays.) The TV advertising targetted at children are unfair and hazardous to health. Besides celebrities and cartoons (like Superman), children’s exposure to junk food ads online increase.

Some people look thin on the outside, but are fat on the inside. The worst fat is the fat hidden in the belly as it could be dangerous and even lethal. Soda is the cigarettes of the 21st century ( the harmful effects of smoking, like lung cancer, are well-known).

To advocate healthy eating is like swimming upstream. This film opens up a discussion into something more : about the food industry, accompanying politics, years of misinformation, research and nuitritional study and their discoveries.

Sunshine Superman

I’ve come across this DVD a couple of times but didn’t think of borrowing it until recently because I finally decided I wanted to know more about BASE (Buildings, Antennae towers, Spaces, Earth) jumping, though it’s definitely something that I won’t ever attempt. That it is a true story and a documentary on Carl Boenish means I can expect lots of archival footage and superb aerial photography.

The film begins with a Prologue in which Carl Boenish narrates that Nothing happens by chance. Everything that happens, happens for a reason. Happens due to the law of the universe. The aerial photography of the cliffs is simply breathtaking.

Boenish is seen being interviewed by Pat Sajak, the host of my all-time favourite TV programme, Wheel of Fortune. This is from a 1978 footage. The camera then cuts to show Carl as a young child: he had polio and weak legs, therefore spent a lot of his time playing the piano. As a young man, he is seen playing a mean piano. An intellectual, his life changed completely when he started skydiving,

He is the first person known for free fall parachuting photography, and in-charge of the aerial free fall parachuting sequences in MGM’s The Gypsy Moths. As a film-maker first and shydiver second, he spent two years to do a 15-minute film.

One of the greatest challenges is falling from the 3,000-feet tall El Capitan inside of Yosemite Valley Park in California, USA. It is an idyllic place, so beautiful and utterly magnificent.

A geek and a nerd, Carl was still unmarried at 40, until he met Jean in April 1979. She wrote him a letter, and he called her. On their first date, thay talked about drop zone, things they believed in, principles they held to and had a foot race next to an airplane that was starting to take off. Theirs is an unique coupling: they are diametrical opposites but both are very analytical. Places they jumped off together include Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and a TV tower that is a thousand feet high in Houston, Texas in 1981, Crocker Centre Building in downtown Los Angeles, Union Planners Bank Building in Memphis, Tennessee in 1984 and Trollveggan, the largest cliff face in Europe. (Most appropriately, the music played here is Wagner’s Das Weingold).

One fateful day, an exhausted Jean decided to stay behind as Carl leaves for Stabben. (The music during the drive to Trollveggan is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 9 in E-flat.) There is some rain and is quite windy, and Carl has a problem with his leg. Still, he goes up to the Pinnacle. He jumps between Trollveggan and San Vatin in Troll Tin Massive. The jump failed. Carl hits the mountain wall and is suspended in the valley. His parachute stops at the mountain side and there is no sign of life.

The Police are informed and they call in the coast guard helicopter as the accident occured in an isolated area. Jean is informed over the phone: “Your husband had been involved in an accident and it doesn’t look good”. Though Carl is known to live on the edge of his dreams, his death shocked and shook many people.

Two days after the accident, Jean is the first to jump off the same cliff. As is also Carl’s vision, Jean believes that “everybody goes through the same things in their lives from the time they are born till the time they die. We all go through birth and death but we have had cultural pressures about how to handle it. Everyone has his own real way of reacting. It will be individual. And BASE jumping encourages people to be individuals, to discover and explore their individuality. There’s been no one who had never had this death experience, so don’t let death impede you as a hurdle. Don’t let it be a wall that you bang up against and then can’t see past, can’t see through, can’t see over. What deserves praise? Death doesn’t deserve prasie. Life and the wondrous works that we do in life from our good ideas – these deserve the praise. That’s what we should be standing by. That’s what we should be paying attention to.”

Just before the end credits, footage of a BASE jumper at Trollveggen in Norway dives to The Hollies’ “All I Need Is the Air”. Even more archival footage is seen as the credits roll. The entire team – including the reenactment cast – is fantastic.