For those lacking a classical music background, or interest, or even the slightest notion about what makes a concerto a concerto, a feature-length documentary tracking the 60 year career of a world-renowned choral conductor might sound like a dud. It did for me, any way. Robert who? Before seeing the film, I kept referring to the protagonist as Charles Shaw (ya know, 2 buck chuck).
But after sitting through approximately 71 minutes of modern day interviews with both choral and orchestral figures, several iterations of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and archived footage of Shaw sweating profusely, clutching his baton, and yelling in a deep baritone to his students “you misconstrue making music with making noise!” — I admit, I’m a convert. And I cried no less than three times.
The film begins with the trailer, a finely crafted teaser with interviews from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Jimmy Carter. We see black-and-white photos of a handsome, young tee-shirt wearing Shaw circa the Great Depression-era, and then snippets of an older, heavier Shaw, conducting both a chorus and orchestra in grainy color clips. We hear about Shaw’s genius and his madness, his triumphs, his peccadilloes. We must know more; how has this self-taught boy from a small town in California ascended the heights of musical mastery?
It’s hard to say. A viewer, like myself, cannot quite comprehend how the son of a minister who was destined for the pulpit, with no formal training, ended up with his very own chorale on the Ed Sullivan show. A lot of luck, determination, blood, sweat, and tears? Timing? Interviewees refer to him, a number of times, as the greatest choral conductor America has ever seen, and ever will see. In his career, Shaw won 14 Grammys, apprenticed with world-renowned conductor George Szell at the prestigious Cleveland Orchestra, and founded the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus.
None of that means very much (or, at least as much as it could) to someone who, as mentioned, does not know what makes a concerto a concerto. The most compelling aspect of the film, and it is a trope that is played throughout, is the absolute earnestness of the man. Yes, he made humans sing like angels, yes he perfectly conducted classic compositions he had to learn from scratch. But it wasn’t an easy road, and the documentary shows us this, not in quite the gritty fashion it probably resembled in real life, but close.
Shaw’s parents are disappointed that he has not chosen a path devoted to the church (even though throughout his life, Shaw’s words and lessons are often spiritually endowed). When the golden child of the family, Shaw’s baby brother, is killed in WWII (Shaw conscientiouslly objected) his mother tells him, “it should have been you.” We can only imagine how this affected the young man — it could have very easily drowned him. But he persists, in an overworked alcohol fueled manner, he persists. None of the interviewees dare use the term “alcoholic,” except for Shaw’s stepson, but they all readily refer to the man’s “heavy drinking.” Shaw’s first marriage in his early 20s produced three children and very little love. He was always on the road, philandering with female choral members, working late into the night, drinking heavily at bars with Dylan Thomas (who would eventually drink himself to death). No members of the first family are interviewed. This man with so much innate, inexplicable talent, the protagonist we’re rooting for to live out the rags to riches American dream is also a man so marred we sort of hate him.
Shaw wouldn’t care, though. It was not his person that he wanted to prevail, but the music: “The arts may indeed be not the luxury of the few but the last best hope of humanity — to inhabit with joy this planet.” And we feel that, every minute of the documentary we see that his mission is greater than mere fame.
Shaw was a progressive — in a time of civil unrest in Atlanta he fought to include faces of all colors in his chorus. He believed that music was music, and great music could be produced by those who persevered, regardless of age, race, or personal history. He used art as a means of resistance. During the Cold War, specifically during the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis, Shaw took his chorale to Germany — the wall was still up — and East Berlin was not a very welcoming place. The chorale played to a packed house, and the audience and chorale members were all reduced to tears. Shaw went backstage, changed, and came back around to the still standing, applauding audience.
Shaw believed, in a way perhaps only a minister’s son can truly believe, that art was what would bring together people in even the most tense or terrifying times. Beyond his talent, it was Shaw’s belief that resonated with so many, music-lovers or no. He saw, heard, and felt something very few are privy to. And then he shared it with the rest of the world.