They’re not panhandlers—make no mistake. The street performers of Pittsburgh want to make that perfectly clear. This is their job. They stake out high-traffic corners in front of shops and on bridges and sing, play a variety of instruments, juggle, dance and generally do their best to entertain the passersby. And if these passersby toss some change or a few bucks their way, that’s just showing appreciation for the performance. To make a further distinction: panhandling is illegal. Busking is not.
The independent film company, Tonerwoods, attempted to put on a busking festival in order to both showcase some of these street talents and attempt to attract more people to the once-thriving city center, Market Square. Market Square used to be a crowded, noisy and colorful section of town, but has been dying over the last decade thanks in part to the suburban sprawl of malls and shopping centers that have cropped up outside the city. If successful, the festival would prove to the city council that buskers would attract people to the city and possibly start shopping there again.
“On Every Corner” documents the months leading up to that festival and profiles many of the buskers that would be, hopefully, taking part. Some, like the truly amazing Lion Dance Team and the fire-eating “Daring Douglases”, are incredible to watch—and could easily make people very late to work should one encounter them on a lunch our. Others, well… it’s easy to see why some of the street performers, like the aptly-named “Crazy Bridge Man”, who plays guitar and sings a variety of originals and covers, would be mistaken for homeless panhandlers. But the performances are as varied as the performers themselves and the documentary is quick to draw attention to this fact, as well as point out that while some do rely on their daily tips as their main source of income, others merely do it as a part time hobby. There is no typical busker, and their presence on the Pittsburgh streets does, indeed, enrich the city—particularly now when you’re hard-pressed to find anything resembling a crowd even at high noon in the Steel City ghost town.
“On Every Corner” stands out as being one of the most beautifully-shot documentaries I’ve come across in recent memory, and is definitely sincere in its efforts to present its subjects as unique and, in most cases, very talented individuals. Though it starts slow, with its man-on-the-street quizzing of the average passerby about the meaning of the word “busker”, once the dozen or more buskers themselves are introduced, you almost hope the film will never end. And, as a testament to how successful this doc is, the tension genuinely mounts as you wait to see if the fickle Pittsburgh weather will hold out so the festival will be a hit (and if the fickle buskers will actually show up to perform in Market Square).
Making the festival rounds now, “On Every Corner” is recommended viewing for anyone who loves amateur performers—particularly those you watch and think to yourself, ‘wow, why aren’t they playing professionally?’ One busker even answers that question: “I make more on the street per day than I ever made in a club.” They’re not panhandlers, make no mistake; buskers sing (and juggle, and strum guitar, play violin/trumpet/sax, and dance) for their suppers.