Eva Soltes' documentary, Lou Harrison: A World of Music, is a warm, loving tribute to one of America's most original musical minds with a depth beyond most films of its kind. Often in documentaries about individuals, especially when the subject is a musician, there's a tendency with filmmakers to try create an aura of mystery or tragedy around the subject. Soltes' film has none of that- she lived across the street from Harrison for years and treats him, and his partner Bill Colvig, as real people, and as friends. That she does so without a trace of sentimentality is half the film's strength. The other half comes from her subject: Harrison's a truly unique American persona- a visionary musician who despite having suffered a breakdown that made him something of a recluse for years, he comes across as avuncular, warm, intelligent and curious. The more Soltes' camera exposes him, the more one wants to know about him. The same can be said of Harrison's music, which runs through almost the entire film, but in wisely chosen and edited segments
Despite the film's brief feeling (it's 90 minutes), there's a of lot territory covered- Harrison's childhood and early career in New York are given in-depth treatment, and the social/cultural contexts of his lifetime are seamlessly woven into the personal narrative, such as the tribulations undergone by friend, mentor and fellow musical visionary Henry Cowell. Soltes shows the man as well as his times, often revealed in engaging anecdotes by fellow artists including Merce Cunnigham, Terry Riley and Michael Tilson Thomas. But it's Harrison's own honesty and openness which truly make the film a small wonder- a portrait of a lone wolf, fully engaged with everything around him, and using it to create a life and art unique to his own vision.
The film opens today at the Roxie in San Francisco. Highly recommended.