By Elias Savada | October 29, 2009

“Doing it in front of people is a lot different that doing it in your boxers in your living room at midnight.” -Dr. Drew Mays, amateur pianist

What a pleasant little gem of a documentary. Reflecting on other competition-themed films (“Wordplay” for crossword puzzle enthusiasts, “Mad Hot Ballroom” for NYC elementary school dancers, and “Spellbound” about the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee Championship, just to name a few of the ones I’ve enjoyed), “They Came to Play” might not be as powerfully “scripted” in its talking head/piano playing presentation, but there is charm in the back stories of about a dozen or so of the 75 worldly and unknown contestants at the Fifth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs (over 35 years of age) hosted by The Van Cliburn Foundation and held every four years.

The players profiled in the film are a United Nations microcosm. Genial folk, some who played music as a child and then went on to other things, have made life changes and career decisions, only to re-friend the piano years later and find again the passion they discovered in their earlier years. The diverse, well spoken participants come from all walks of life: flight attendant, retired architect, karate guy, physicist, internist, dental assistant, investment analyst, AIDS survivor, recovering cocaine addict, Hodgkin’s lymphona sufferer, retired jeweler, civil litigator. Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy. [Just kidding, but I had to say it.]

The filmmakers give you only a few minutes to absorb entire life essences of the key individuals – their families, their homes, bits in their offices, their yards, their gardens. One man recalls the end of World War II in Berlin, while a woman tells of growing up in France to become a tennis pro (even playing against Billy Jean King). Each has his or her own spirituality that was affected by music, especially the piano, and is delighted to have discovered a unique showcase for their talents.

Romanian-born director Alex Rotaru graduates to his first feature credit from a career editing and photographing numerous documentaries. Producer Lori Miller and Executive Producer Matt Cooper were partly responsible for the great little mid-life crisis film “Panic” from 2001, featuring Donald Sutherland and William H. Macy as father and son and business partners (i.e., hit men). You should put that film in your queue at Netflix while you’re waiting for “They Came to Play” to appear in a theater near you.

They have chosen their footage wisely — and possily hysterically — as Rotaru, Miller and editors Harrison Engle and Drew Kilcoin culled 200 hours of material into a crammed 91 minutes. They are able to tell fascinating short stories about their subjects as they progress through the competition (which starts in earnest halfway through the film, on the campus of Texas Christian University). For me, I’d have never made it into the starting gate having given up the ivories decades ago. An irritating experience with my piano teacher Mrs. Stockheim more than half a century ago was too harsh for the rebellious teenager in me. I wanted pop, she wanted classical. I wanted Lesley Gore (well, every boy did); she wanted Bach and Beethoven. It was not an easy battle. On the other hand, my dad could play the instrument by ear; me, I’m happy to still be able to bang out a mediocre rendition of “Chopsticks.”

The unfortunate drawback of doing a film about piano competition is that the music, in its complete form, ends up on the cutting room floor. All you get are snippets of classical music (one pianist had a 28-minute piece cut to seconds). On the other hand, the filmmakers have included some very amusing moments, including a sequence showing how some of the players prepare for their presentation. Bananas, pasta, warm water (no cold hands, heaven forbid), a stuffed animal placed atop the piano. Some very intriguing habits. One fellow is so fierce in his playing that he breaks the seat. Most of the “castmembers” don’t have stage moms, but some do have stage spouses, including at least one who contended in a previous competition, but has put off entering the filmed contest so her husband can have a go.

I caught the film at the 86-year-old Avalon Theatre in Northwest Washington, DC, for a one-time-only screening on October 25th, as part of that independent cinema’s Avalon in Focus film series, but it is being pedaled around the country by producer Miller (and possibly others). There was a post screening Q and A, plus performances by two of the contestants, including the robust redhead Esfir Ross, one of the film’s “stars,” who flew in from Oakland, California. I suspect other presentations of the film will have similar surprises. You can check out the schedule here. In DC, patrons were able to purchase the DVD after the show, but you can also sign up for notification at the website when it will be generally available.

The only thing amateur about the film are the players, though they are all winners. Meanwhile, “They Came to Play” inspires in the best documentary fashion.

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