Strumming to the Converted
One of your responsibilities even as a silly pretend film critic is to make the correct choice of what to feature in the column every week. Ideally this should be a film which is widely available for your readers to go and see if they so wish, be of significant interest to many people, and hopefully of quite high quality too. Bearing all this in mind, this week I went to see the big-budget, high profile movie Hugo, directed by the acclaimed Martin Scorsese, which features fascinating usage of 3D and is a charming, deeply impressive and very interesting movie. Nevertheless, I'm actually going to tell you about my trip to see a movie which – as far as I know – only ever shows at a single screen world-wide, and is targeted mainly at musical oddballs. It's a really good movie though: Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher's Mighty Uke.
I knew that this groundbreaking uke-umentary was only making a single appearance in Oxford. While I was also aware of the events supporting the showing, I didn't know quite what an unusual evening this was to be. I was standing in the ticket line when a disparate group in matching t-shirts arrived and introduced themselves to the Phoenix staff with cheery cries of 'We're the Mighty Uke people!' You don't get that down the local Odeon.
So I took my place in the theatre, noticing a number of my fellow patrons had brought their ukuleles with them, but was interrupted by the appearance of a stocky Canadian in a cap in front of the screen. Rather to my surprise this turned out to be the director, Tony Coleman: the 'Mighty Uke people' were not particularly rabid fans of the movie, but the actual film-makers themselves. Having the director turn up in person and thank you for coming is a very gratifying experience, and I'm surprised more movies don't use it. Having sketched out the way the evening would go, the film rolled.
Coleman and Meagher's film is about the ukulele; partly the history of this remarkable instrument, but mainly concerned with the current boom in its popularity. They set their cards on the table from practically the first sequence, which portrays the celebrated uke soloist Jake Shimabukuro in action: suspicions that anyone involved is going to treat the ukulele as a joke or in a remotely condescending manner at utterly blown away.
From hereon the movie proceeds at a fairly brisk trot for the rest of its 80-minute running time, starting by covering the extent of the current ukulele boom (players from as far afield as Japan and Israel make an appearance), and the reasons for its popularity. The ease of starting to play is, rightly, addressed, along with the pleasingly low expectations surrounding the instrument.
After this there is a lengthy segment on the history of the instrument, beginning in Hawaii in 1879 and proceeding through the 20th century, and interviews with notable players both past and present (one of whom, the 103-year-old veteran Bill Tapia, died only days before the screening I went to). These run the gamut from traditional folksy performers, to singer-songwriter Uni And Her Ukulele, to Jon Braman, a hip-hop ukulele player from New York, to Scandinavian punk uke devotee Elvira Bira, and finally to the Canadian virtuoso James Hill whose talents on the instrument almost seem to defy logic.
From hereon the movie segues again, to look at one of Canada's most distinguished ukulele groups, the Langley Ukulele Ensemble (of which Hill is an alumnus) and their almost insanely enthusiastic teacher. Needless to say their skills are such that every summer they play a residency in Hawaii, and the film follows them on one such trip.
British audiences will no doubt have one major question: and the answer is, yes, George Formby does appear in the film – but we hardly get to hear that legendary right hand in action, doubtless for rights clearance reasons. The same presumably explains the omission of other noted performers such as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain or Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. There's hardly any Jake Shimabukuro in it either, really – the only modern great who gets serious screen-time is Hill, frequently described as the world's greatest living ukulele player, who was clearly heavily involved with the production behind-the-scenes.
Hill has a point when he talks about the extraordinary musical sleight-of-hand a well-played ukulele is capable of – the sounds it generates seem so far in excess of what the musician is doing to it – but I think the appeal of the instrument is far simpler. It's impossible to listen to decent uke music without feeling just a tiny bit uplifted and cheered, and the sound of massed ukes playing together is, quite simply, absurdly joyous.
A wise man (not me) has said that a great documentary makes you interested in a topic you knew nothing about previously. As a (very new) uke player myself, I was probably always going to enjoy a film which celebrated the instrument, but even so I think this is a great little film. I don't think it's perfect – the structure doesn't lend itself to much of a climax and the film seems to stop rather abruptly – but another wise man (and this time it was me) has commented on the suicide-inducing qualities of most allegedly 'feel good' movies: I've never seen Mighty Uke described in those terms, but for me this was one of the most simply enjoyable films I've seen all year.
And the evening did not conclude with the end of the film – following a short intermission, we moved forward to cram the front two or three rows of the theatre, as James Hill himself was accompanying the tour and performed a brief set with his accompanist, the cellist Anne Davison. When not telling fairly droll anecdotes about being interned in Singapore on suspicion of having bird flu, Hill showed off his own skills and the versatility of the uke by playing folk songs, jazz, original compositions, and then rounding off with his celebrated arrangement of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean, playing percussion, rhythm and melody simultaneously on a single uke. One of the most astounding pieces of musicianship I've ever seen.
Finally, there was the promised ukulele jam, and it seemed that most of the crowd had brought their own ukes (something else you don't get down the multiplex – I suspect if I turned up to Twilight and started playing the uke I would be bodily ejected from the cinema). I was no exception, but my entry-level plastic ukulele seemed very humble given the distinguished instruments suddenly appearing all around. However, this was no time for bashfulness. The sound of twenty-five ukuleles and a cello tuning up simultaneously is not one which is easily described, and only added to my concern that the first string on my own uke was an octave low1 but then the assembled ukes and their players launched into a couple of simple songs, led by Hill (performing a strange semaphore in mid-strum to indicate chord changes). This was a strangely transcendent moment for me in my playing; the duff noises coming off the A-string and my tendency to get my strumming finger tangled on the upstroke suddenly seemed quite inconsequential (although my inability to get from G to D minor cleanly was more of an issue).
Too soon it was over and we all wafted out of the theatre in a state of elation, united by our music and our affection for the uke. Much to my delight I made the acquaintance of a group of Oxford-based ukers and with any luck I will not be labouring in isolation for very much longer. A good movie, a great experience, and the best night out I've had in a long time.