The more one lives life, the more they realize that it is not an experience that can very easily be tied up in a pretty bow. Things get dark, weird, confusing, and very rarely offer the privilege of a pretty conclusion; that however, does not mean our documentaries can’t be like that!
Crescendo! The Power of Music follows three “socially disadvantaged” children, living in inner-city America. All three are given the opportunity of pursuing classical music through a growing, global after-school program, El Sistema, that started in Venezuela with the main intention of bringing social transformation through music to disadvantaged children.
“I know that if we can keep this program in their lives, we can literally save their lives,” says Curtis Institute of Music graduate Stanford Thompson, the wise and charismatic founder of the Philadelphia program at the center of the film.
These are big words and ideals, and unfortunately, the film does not do that well of a job creating the action that is dramatically urgent enough for these ideals to mean much. However, with that being said, this film does succeed in finding and portraying absorbing characters that the audience can care about, relate to, and be inspired by, as we watch their joys and sorrows throughout.
These three character are primarily Raven, Zebediah, and Mohammed, all 5th-8th grade children who are intriguing in their own distinct ways. Raven is one of of those individuals that is effortlessly charming and an excellently natural violin player. She is delightful, confident, and radiant, and occupies some of the more fascinating scenes in the film. Despite the goofball nature of her in the class, close-ups of Raven during school performances expose a maturity with her music that is far beyond her age, being a naturally engaging performer that expresses her love completely in a non-contrived fashion; it is quite beautiful to watch.
Then there is Zebediah, who is older than Raven and far more introverted and soft-spoken. He can barely look towards the camera during his first interview and talks in a strictly monotone fashion that possibly hints at slight autism or Asperger’s syndrome perhaps. His growth throughout the film is the most awe-inspiring, as the audience watches him evolve into a strikingly disciplined, focused, and confident student by the end.
Finally, there is Mohammed whose story is the most heart wrenching. His passion for music runs just as deep as Zebediah’s and Raven’s, but his poor performance in school creates a very deep conflict with his father, who holds back no punches in conversations about his kid’s work ethic in front of the camera. These are among the most powerful of the scenes.
Although I believe the empathetic and engrossing portrayal of these three characters is the greatest accomplishment of Crescendo!, I ask myself, what more does the film offer besides these elements? Especially because when I examine these elements are more closely, they produce quite a discouraging feeling of being underwhelmed.
What new insights are the filmmakers offering about the age-old conflicts between balancing after-school programs and homework, or having to work even when you are arguably the most talented in the bunch? The last one was a main “point” in Raven’s character arc, and for her struggle to be treated in that manner, it just came off as forcing conflict into a story when perhaps there wasn’t that much conflict there to begin with.
Perhaps the relative triviality of their stories would not come across as much if the beginning of the film did not so heavily emphasize helping the “socially disadvantageous.” Are these kids really suffering all that much? The beginning shots of the film are compositions of street signs in inner-city Philadelphia with the slogan, “Stop the violence.”
Who was getting killed? When?? The film does not probe deeply enough into the kids’ surrounding circumstances to take their highly romantic musings that seriously.
By the end, Crescendo! is almost too tame, too likable for its own good. Maybe these kids are suffering, and the filmmakers were simply too afraid to create such a heavy portrait. Or maybe these kids weren’t suffering as much as was presented, and that is fine as well, but the consequence is a film that is pleasant to watch, but does not necessarily stay with you once it is over.
Hoop Dreams is a 1994 film that comes to mind as having very similar themes as Crescendo!, but it makes a stronger point to explore these ideas and to create a much more dense and morally/socially complex portrait. And one that is not afraid to get dark and ugly.
But Hoop Dreams is a high watermark and an unfair film to compare this to, but it highlighted my wishes that Crescendo! could have been more deep, dark and/or weird. Otherwise, it comes across as more of a commercial for the youth orchestra program than a documentary probing important social questions and solutions, which the film stressed at the beginning, as if presenting these profound questions was one of its goals.
For what it is however, Crescendo! The Power of Music is a simple and inspiring film that is enjoyable to watch, but a bit too light for my personal taste.