Documentarian Ken Wardrop turns his eye from the relationship between mothers and sons in Mom & Me, to people learning piano throughout Ireland, and the reasons they have for doing so.
The 19th film funded by the Reel Art scheme, The Piano Lesson takes a look at people young and old, who sit at a piano and try to express themselves through the art of music. Focusing on groups of people in each grade – up to eight – The Piano Lesson is a focus on teachers as well as students, and the reasons people have for playing the piano,
The students in the film vary wildly, from Harry who is just starting to learn piano at a very young age, to a woman who studied up until grade eight when she was a teenager, then took piano back up at a difficult time in her life 35 years later. There are twin boys – one who plays guitar and the other piano – who don’t always understand the other’s passion for their instrument, a girl named Rose who wanted a challenge and jumped from grade two to grade seven, and a young boy named John who, as well as learning piano, plays golf, hurling and soccer; “He’s a busy boy” says his proud mother. The teachers in the film also vary, from a woman who allows her student to improvise, to a nun who teaches brothers duets, to a woman whose student convinced her to take up kickboxing.
There is, as there always is with Ken Wardrop’s films, a charm and good natured humour to The Piano Lesson, but unlike Wardrop’s previous films where the vignette style of storytelling allowed for the subjects to reminisce over their lives or tell stories, The Piano Lesson feels very much like one shots of subjects who we never see again. The subject of the film – learning to play a musical instrument – lends itself to narrative storytelling, but we never really learn who these people are, why they are learning piano, what they get from it and what they hope to achieve, other than in a glancing moment with the older woman who came back to piano after a long break, and a grade eight student who said he went from playing a plastic keyboard to the highest grade there is. Following students as they improve and progress through the grades and levels of skill over a number of years would have potentially made a more satisfying film, as the audience would have had a chance to get to know the subjects of the film, and root for their success as they reach each milestone.
In all, The Piano Lesson is charming and entertaining, but cannot sustain its 90 minute running time. A lot of the few, rather than a little of the many could have made The Piano Lesson go from a curiosity to en engaging story of triumph and perseverance.