Notes and Editorial Reviews
Sometimes, life comes between us and our dreams. And sometimes, we are fortunate enough to be reunited.
Multi-award winning THEY CAME TO PLAY focuses on the International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs (hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation), which gathers together 75 of the world’s best amateur pianists for one week of intense competition and camaraderie. Candid interviews offer a glimpse into the lives of the competitors, who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions. All have struggled to balance their music and their ordinary lives—some overcoming extraordinary challenges—and now, all hope to make years of dedication pay off in the performance of a lifetime.
the talent and enthusiasm of the competitors and with the sound of their spectacular music, THEY CAME TO PLAY reminds us all of the passion that burns within us.
Director: Alex Rotaru
Cast: Henri Robert Delbeau, Mark Fuller, Clark Griffith, Ken Iisaka, Slava Levin, Drew Mays, Suzanna Perez, Richard Rodzinski, Esfir Ross, Kathy Trafton
DVD Features: Extended Performances
Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival – Winner Audience Award
Bucharest’s B-EST International Film Festival – Winner Best Documentary
SENE Film, Music & Arts Festival – Winner Best Documentary
Duration: 91 min + extras Color: Color Disc: Standard Amaray Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 Frame rate: 29.97 Language: English Closed caption: No Subtitles: No Region: Region 1
R E V I E W S
In the years since the surprise splash Spellbound (the 2002 Academy Award–nominated documentary chronicling tears and triumph at a national spelling bee) competition has become an all-too familiar format, both for documentary and for reality TV. But among the latter-day surfeit of American Idol offshoots and Wordplay wannabes, They Came to Play is indisputably a standout. An account of the Van Cliburn Foundation’s fifth amateur piano competition, Alex Rotaru’s recently released film traverses continents — and character types — to portray a cross-section of the seventy-five contestants, who appear to share little beyond age (all are older than 35) and a prodigious, but not professional, commitment to the piano. Rotaru, a first-time director, deftly incorporates the most appealing features of the competition genre — anxiety, the tension between anguish and achievement, the viewer’s propensity to form rapid, reflexive allegiances — while eschewing those that have become cliché: soft-witted snark, flimsily contrived competitive conceits. The result is a clever, fresh and hilariously gimlet-eyed interrogation into the human elements of high-pressure competitive performance — the aims, angst and uplift of those who dedicate myriad solitary hours to their passion for the piano.
They Came to Play starts with a lure: the notion that many of the competitors stopped practicing for years — decades, even. As nonprofessional musicians, they have taken time off to pursue careers: attend medical school, fly planes, become lawyers and jewelers and dental assistants. Some trained at conservatories; others are self-taught. If you’ve ever played an instrument, in other words, you can identify; Rotaru quickly kindles the classic spectatorial fantasy. But just as quickly, he begins to demonstrate that this cast of characters is genuinely exceptional; their perseverance — their investment in what is, in effect, a “hobby” — is unwavering. They play until their families retreat into exile in the quietest corners of their homes. They practice until their fingertips split and crack, then coat them with nail polish and keep practicing. At heart, they perceive themselves as pianists, and the Cliburn competition is their opportunity to prove it in public: as one contestant explains, “My job is a wonderful job, but who I really am inside is a musician.”
Performing onstage for an audience, however, proves entirely different from practicing late at night in the living room. By and large, the contestants battle to contain the psychological flotsam that, in some cases, may have propelled them toward such an intensively solitary pastime to begin with. The film’s great strength is its depiction of this struggle, its portrayal of performers at the intersection offrets and flaps of daily existence. Rotaru conveys telling nuances of character and contrasts shimmering fragments of performance with confidence-smashing comments from doubtful parents, rituals to prevent tremors and memory slips, and even a broken bench, the result of a bearish performer’s over-exertions at the keyboard. In the end, They Came to Play makes it its task to illuminate boundaries — between amateur and professional, between audience and performer, and particularly, between the transporting potential of music and the fallible physicality of human performance — and then, thrillingly, beckons both performers and viewers to cross them. In the words of one contestant, “Amateur does it for the love of it; audience goes and listens because they love it. And it’s that shared love, that common space, where we find each other. And that’s what’s most important.”
— Lucia Rahilly, Listen Magazine
"Professional musicians, actors and other performing artists, when they get to talking about their work, can, let’s face it, be kind of boring in a self-absorbed, detached-from-reality way. That’s what makes “They Came to Play,” a beautifully executed documentary about the Van Cliburn Foundation’s Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, so refreshing...Mr. Rotaru paces the film perfectly, mixing performance footage with scenes of the competitors talking about their lives and the role music plays for them. And, just as admirably, he never tips his hand as the competition’s elimination rounds progress. When the victor’s name is called, you can feel the joy and surprise that must have gone through the concert hall and the winner." -- Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times
"I fell in love with the brilliantly talented ‘amateurs’ I got to know in this movie; I was inspired by them and proud of them. No screenwriter could come up with a feeler-gooder movie than this one!" -- David Pogue, The New York Times
"Bittersweet...a welcome twist on the now-ubiquitous kiddie competition doc." -- Village Voice
"Delightful and disarming." -- Variety
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