Tuesday, January 25, 2011

For Once in My Life (Big Blue Box Productions/PBS, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was For Once in My Life, a 2010 documentary being presented as a preview for PBS’s “Independent Lens” series (though just how the mavens at PBS decide whether a particular film is an “Independent Lens” or a “P.O.V.” I’ve never been able to figure out), about the Goodwill Industries operation in Miami, Florida, which in something of an eye-opener for those who think of Goodwill as just a thrift store is shown not only using people with disabilities for their main work — making uniforms for various institutional customers, including the U.S. military — but also training some of their clients to play in the “Spirit of Goodwill Band.” The film is about the band during a frantic rehearsal period for a public performance at a conference of politicians being held in Miami and the efforts of their musical director, the presumably non-disabled Javier Peña, to get them in shape technically and musically for their show. (One of the most remarkable aspects of this movie is that he isn’t at all easy on them; Peña is as tough a taskmaster in rehearsals as he would be with a group of fully able-bodied and able-minded players.)

The rehearsal footage is interspersed with profiles of some of the individual musicians and how they ended up there — including Terry Wigfall, a blind African-American saxophonist (who seems to be the band’s most talented member, though maybe that’s just because he’s the only one shown improvising), who was dropped at age 14 months and never recovered physically; keyboard player Christian Acosta, who’s autistic and blind; a young drummer in a wheelchair with Down syndrome who calls himself “Sam Percussion” (his real name is Sam Collins); and perhaps the saddest one of all, singer Nancy Spagnolo, who grew up with a slow-learning brother and older sister and, though she began with average intelligence, she slipped behind as a result of being around her siblings and not getting the intellectual stimulation she needed (so much for the idea that intelligence is exclusively genetically determined and environment has nothing to do with it!). I didn’t find this one anywhere nearly as moving as The Eyes of Me, a similar “Independent Lens” production from last year which I also saw at the library, and which was utterly gripping in its tale of four students at a special high school in Texas for blind students and their attempts to get about in the world — most of the film stayed in the rehearsal room, and when it ventured out we got the backstories of the principals as people, but I’d have liked more of an insight into what led them to become musicians and what difficulties they faced in getting as good as they were.

Among the things I liked about the movie were the ease with which band members of different races mixed — the group we see on screen is about one-third Latino/a, one-third Black and one-third white — and the sheer infectiousness and joy they projected when they played. Their rendition of the title song (which I keep forgetting was a hit for Tony Bennett well before it became associated with blind musical superstar Stevie Wonder) is heard over the opening credits but not shown, but the two songs they do play on screen, Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s “Conga” and Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” are infectious pieces to which the Spirit of Goodwill Band members do full justice. According to the imdb.com page on the film, it was released theatrically at 95 minutes — about 20 minutes longer than the version shown at the public library, which will probably also be the cut PBS airs — and it would be nice to see the longer version sometime.