Banjo master Béla Fleck has taken on the lifelong task of emancipating his instrument from stereotype and misconception. In 2006 he went to Africa to research the banjo’s roots, and jam with incredible acoustic musicians around the continent. This resulted in the award-winning documentary “Throw Down Your Heart”. Now, Béla is back on screen with a new musical adventure: He’s been commissioned to write a major banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony. Despite having no experience creating orchestral music on his own, no ability to read and write standard music notation, and no formal training in classical composition or orchestration, he takes on the project with his customary single-mindedness, creating an amazing new work - all in front of the cameras.
The film begins before he has written the first notes, and ends a year later with a sold out premiere performance with the Nashville Symphony. Pressures build throughout, and viewers can see, from the closest vantage point possible, the amount of work it takes to visualize, create and perform such an ambitious and groundbreaking piece. Some of the film was shot by Béla himself during the composition process, and these scenes capture the ephemeral moments when creative forces galvanize, and music is created before the viewers’ eyes and ears. Throughout the film, a window is also let open to Béla’s private life, with friends (and musical luminaries) like Earl Scruggs, Chick Corea, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Zakir Hussain and Abigail Washburn making appearances.
Other important relationships explored in the film are with Béla’s classical “big brother”, Edgar Meyer, Béla’s wife Abigail Washburn, and Béla’s stepfather Joe Paladino, who played cello and exposed Béla to chamber music at a young age. Joe passed away since “How to Write a Banjo Concerto” was made, and the film is also dedicated to him. Other cameos by Hilary Hahn, Pope Benedict XVI, the Sesame Street funky chickens, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and many others add breadth to the film.
Béla is also forced to deal with some of his own demons in this film, mostly involving the “father issues” he has accumulated. His parents split when he was a year old, and he didn’t meet his father until his forties. Béla’s father named him after three classical composers, including Béla Bartok, and Béla has been reticent to embrace Bartok’s music - until now. Writing the piece becomes a cathartic experience for Béla, and this reckoning with his father, and his namesake, makes the importance of creating something truly great all the more vital.
Lastly, the film chronicles Béla’s own exploration of the classical orchestra through interviews with the principal orchestra musicians, and by having them demonstrate and explain their instruments and what they love about them. These scenes crackle with life, as the classical performers excitedly play for Béla, and fill him in on the quirks and qualities of their respective instruments. Many people don’t understand or have exposure to the orchestra in the modern world, and this film serves as a thrilling gateway to understanding the intricacies and interactions of the symphony concert hall.
Béla is used to being an outsider, as he has spent much of his life putting the banjo into unusual settings. In this concerto he imagines the banjo as an “impostor”, sneaking into a masquerade party (in this case the symphony orchestra) and making believe it belongs. And while his instrument keeps up the charade for a while, at the very end of the piece Béla lets the cat out of the bag with a blast of Earl Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo, and the audience (and the orchestra) finds out that it doesn’t really belong there. Or does it?
One part personal journey, one part exploration of modern day classical music-making, and one part joyful concert film, ‘How To Write A Banjo Concerto’ delights as much as it informs, and provides an intimate and revealing look at the creative process of one of modern music’s giants.