Making the Grade: Ken Wardrop’s grand piano film scales the heights

The documentary maker’s film about people taking piano exams may be his warmest yet

 

Lovely Ken Wardrop is one of those rare film-makers who gives off exactly the energy you would expect from watching one of his films. Now in his mid-40s, a little shiny on the roof, Ken fizzes with warmth and positivity. He could restore even the bitterest cynic’s faith in humanity.

The same is true of his documentary features. His & Hers, in which Irish women of ascending age discuss the men in their lives, became a genuine smash on its domestic release in 2010. Mom and Me, which premiered at the prestigious Telluride film festival, had good news about mothers and their sons in Oklahoma. The incoming Making the Grade might be his best and most heart-lifting film yet.

Like His & Hers, the picture has a beautifully elegant structure. Wardrop studies students and their piano teachers as they prepare for their appropriate grade exam. Making the Grade begins with the most basic grade (scales and nursery tunes) and ends with the most advanced (full-on Chopin and uncensored Rachmaninoff). Along the way we encounter a colourful variety of consistently interesting, consistently nice people. This disabled teenager gains confidence. This middle-aged lady gains some relief in a time of trauma. Various hilarious children attempt to distract strict (but fair) teachers. It could almost make you feel good about the world.

“Firstly I gave myself the rule that I must engage with the character,” Wardrop explains. “You just like to be around these people. I wanted it initially to go beyond grade eight and our last character was going on to the stage at the National Concert Hall to give a first solo performance. I realised going through the edit that was just too big.”

The film is not necessarily about prodigies (although there may be one or two in there). There is no looming jeopardy as there was in, say, Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound, the famous 2002 documentary about spelling bees.

“I am looking for humanity,” Wardrop says. “But I am also looking for the everyday. I am not looking for big stakes. I want universal moments. I have a narrative thread. They have this task. Films like Spellbound tend to be about geniuses. There’s chaos. There’s something big at the end. This was better for me because there was no great risk. There’s no danger of them failing badly.”

Wardrop fell into film-making relatively late. He was raised in Portarlington, Co Laois. He initially studied geography and sociology at Trinity College Dublin but didn’t finish the course. As we all did back then when loose ends dangled, he made for London and somehow ended up as office manager of an architecture firm. He could have got by doing that. He has the manner of a chap who can make the best of any situation.

“I had been working alongside creatives,” he says. “I would clock out at two minutes past five. They’d all be there until 11. And I’d think: why? Because they love what they are doing. I remember having a conversation with one of the associates and he said: ‘Ken, you need to get out and find your way in life.’ I came back not knowing what I wanted to do. I thought maybe I’d get involved with the production side of theatre.”

The film bug

A pal of his was studying at the National Film School at the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and he began helping out on her movies. He then decided to attend himself, and gradually began developing his own class of documentary.

“There were all these younger people making films with guns in them,” he laughs. “I wasn’t into all that. So I decided to make films that were in my comfort zone. I acted as costume designer. The gay guy in the class? Of course? Ha ha! I fell in like that.”

His graduation film, Undressing My Mother, which did indeed study his own mum, won a European Film Award and a mention at Sundance. He was off. It is no bad thing for a director to have a fingerprint. Over the succeeding decade and a half, Ken honed a technique that reaches something like full fruition with Making the Grade. He draws wisdom and witticism from all sorts of ordinary people. He keeps his camera steady. He arranges the interviews in a pattern that makes narrative sense.

Selecting the interviewees is part of the challenge. Getting them to say the right things is another. One gets the impression that these people are speaking directly to each audience member.

“One of the main jobs of a documentarian is to establish trust,” he says. “My mum used to put on a voice when she’d answer the telephone and I didn’t want that voice appearing. I wanted everyone to be themselves. Everyone gets a bit anxious. And I talk a lot anyway, So by the time I’ve finished, they are desperate to get a word in.”

The teacher

Eileen McCollum is one of the teachers who falls for Wardrop’s off-screen charm in Making the Grade. She has been based in Crosshaven, Co Cork, for three decades and is shown exhibiting just the right sort of balance with her teenage students. She teases. But she doesn’t let barriers slip too far. I wonder how Wardrop drew her out.

“He is such a wonderful communicator,” she tells me. “I don’t know how he does it. He’s not pushy. But he gets everything out of you. He’ll suddenly sneak in a leading question. You find yourself answering it and later think: Aha! He was very good with the youngsters. He was not in any way condescending. He is such an ordinary guy and very easy. You would forget they were in the room.”

Nobody I talk to feels they have been in any way misrepresented or made fun of. The jokes are all in the participants’ mouths. McCollum certainly recognises the version of herself on screen.

“I like teenagers. You get to know them as people,” she muses. “There will be tensions. They will hate you at times and they have reason to because I am going on and on at them. If they are really interested, they’ll get over that. I’ll get very cross. And I’ll get over that too.”

The singular structure takes us from beginners to pianists of considerable talent. Along the way we meet a heavy metal musician who wants to learn a bit of classical. We encounter more than a few dogs. We meet a hippy teacher who lets most of it hang out. As in all of Wardrop’s films, there is a sense of great discipline to the storytelling. I assume that he made rules for himself as to what he could show and what he couldn’t. We never feel the film has made a shift in tone.

“Everybody got the same opportunity,” he says. “I did an interview with them in their world. I did an interview with the teacher in their world without the student. And then I did the class. I went to practise at home, then the teacher interview and then the two together. I didn’t deviate from that. I didn’t move the camera – as usual.”

Emotional escape

The picture eventually ends up in the company of an articulate, middle-aged lady named Loyola Browne. We learn that Browne played to a very high level until life intervened and she drifted off towards other things. Some time before Wardrop began his research, her son was diagnosed with a brain tumour and she found herself desperate for some emotional compensation. The piano presented itself again.

“Life was just so awful. You couldn’t put words on it,” she tells me. “There were no words and this is where music comes in. I was just dealing with so much trauma. I had very little money and freedom. I was making an inventory of all I had. I had a piano but I never played it. I just couldn’t. One day I realised I needed something. But I didn’t know what that was. I wasn’t able for peopIe. I was too traumatised. You are working in a parallel universe. Then one day I was in the library and I saw the ads where you can tear off a strip. I sent off an email.”

Wardrop remembers that it required no great pressure to get her to contribute. She was eager to explain the importance of music to her life and the way it helped her work through a desperate time. Audiences will be pleased to hear that her son has made a significant improvement.

“He’s much better and we are all moving on,” she says. “I am going to start teaching and I am going to start performing. This is going to be my new career. We have this library of musical literature. And the better I get, the more I enjoy it. I spend so much time with four men who I adore. I feel like I am cheating on one when I move to the other. They are Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff.”

Poster child

Before we get to Loyola, we drop down in Derry for an encounter with the irrepressibly amusing Rosa O’Reilly. An unstoppable talker who wins over everyone she encounters, young Rosa is a star student of veteran (some locals would say “legendary”) teacher Ray McGinley. Mrs McGinley becomes emotional as she remembers setting Rosa a particularly difficult piece over the summer and rocking back when the girl delivered an implausibly complete rendition. Rosa later wrote a poem expressing her appreciation.

“It was really exciting. It was so fun,” Rosa says. “I really enjoyed playing my favourite piano piece. It was one I learned when I was 8½. It was the summer and it was coming to the end of my piano lesions at the end of that term. I asked Mrs McGinley if she would give me a piece that would be exciting – because grade pieces can be very boring. She gave me The Cuckoo. I learned that over the summer. She never thought I’d be able to play it at all. But I did. I learned 2½ pages of it.”

Rosa so bossed the film that she has ended up on the poster. That’s her laughing on the piano while musical notes zip about her head.

“Oh the poster! I really like that. It was so nice. I was sitting on the top of the piano and there were music notes coming out of my head. It took hours, so it did. There was a suggestion that they put me on top of the piano. And they wanted some expressions from me. So they asked me to sing.”

Rosa is one of at least two people of colour in a film that accidentally offers an encouraging portrait of a diverse nation that – contrary to impressions elsewhere – really is capable of getting on with itself. That’s very much Wardrop’s way. He recalls, with characteristic good humour, some of the American responses to his depiction of Oklahoma in Mom and Me.

“That was a good learning experience,” he says. “What I took away was that America is complicated. The east and west coasts, which are your markets for documentary film, aren’t particularly keen on seeing a depiction of middle America that isn’t…”

Looking down on them?

“Yeah, basically,” he says. “I set aside the politics. We had a wonderful time with these people. I didn’t want to say I was gay. I didn’t want to talk politics. But I had a wonderful time.”

It’s hard to imagine anybody other than a total monster getting on with Making the Grade. All life is here and Wardrop’s camera wants to show that life in (literally and figuratively) the most positive light available. Eileen McCollum sums up its approach nicely.

“There was such variety of people,” she says. “When he rang I said: ‘You don’t want old ladies.’ He’s very funny. He said: ‘I want all kinds of ladies.’ ”

All kinds of all sorts of people.

FIVE GREAT PIANO TEACHERS IN THE MOVIES

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1971)

“If I hadn’t told United Artists it was a film about a homosexual who fell in love with a nymphomaniac it might never have been financed,” Ken Russell famously said. Richard Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky really isn’t your average music teacher. Troubled.

Erika Kohut (The Piano Teacher, 2001)

Isabelle Huppert brings her trademark intensity to the role of a middle-aged piano teacher soaked in a need for self-harm. Michael Haneke adapts Elfriede Jelinek’s novel with characteristic merry buoyancy. Very troubled.

Cousin Nicholas (The Seventh Veil, 1945)

James Mason was in prime cad form as the brilliant pianist and teacher who visits misogyny on Anne Todd in a classic British melodrama. Very, very troubled.

Elias Peter Helfgott (Shine, 1996)

You think tennis dads are bad. Before he happens upon a nicer teacher, poor David Helfgott (Geoffrey Rush) is practically tortured by his dad (Armin Mueller-Stahl) as he prepares for life as a concert pianist. Very, very, very troubled.

Madame Sousatzka (Madame Sousatzka, 1988)

Shirley MacLaine wheels out her trademark eccentric as a Russian émigré teaching students frantically in bohemian London. A very pleasant film. Not troubled. Merely a bit difficult.

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