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Welcome to Hot Docs, where content is the star, the story is the glitter and the grit is the glamour. There was no shortage of music-centric docs at the festival’s recently concluded 20th anniversary edition. From the audience award-winner Muscle Shoals to Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer’s courageous young Russian women, from As Time Goes By featuring the world’s oldest jazz combo to the Live Cinema: Image/Sound Mixing performance by Peter Mettler and Biosphere, there were at least 15 films exploring a multitude of musical worlds. Here are ten:

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Take a cracking good yarn about a recording phenomenon that reveals as much about well-known (and enormously talented) musicians as it does of the music they make and you have Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s Muscle Shoals, voted Number One by this year’s Hot Docs audiences. It’s a film with many strong components beginning with the northern Alabama terroir where it’s situated, on the banks of the Tennessee River, which sang, according to native folklore. Its central character, Rick Hall, is the key to it all, a musician with childhood scars who started the FAME recording studio in his late 20s, staffed it with a groove-making back-up band, the Swampers, and committed some of the biggest names in soul music to vinyl. From Percy Sledge (“When a Man Loves a Woman”) who had gone from singing in the nearby cotton fields to serenading patients at the local hospital where he worked as an orderly to Aretha Franklin and Etta James. He was making integrated music in the era of the segregationist governor George Wallace. Keith Richards’ priceless recollections of and actual footage of the recording of “Wild Horses” is one of many highlights, but none more potent, in a narrative sense, than the Swampers leaving Hall to start a rival studio.

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Anyone who has ever heard the Kronos Quartet’s version of Perfidia in which they accompany a Mexican leaf-blower in one of the most romantic pieces of music ever recorded would be fascinated by Mladen Kovacevic’s Unplugged. This sometimes tongue-in-cheek look at how three Serbians relate to this most primitive of instruments follows two superb practitioners of the art – Vera, an ex-private detective who began refining her technique at the age of five, and Pera, a joyous farmer whose exuberant music making’s only restraint is the miserable state of leaves in the Vlach countryside. Meanwhile, Josip, an amateur inventor and self-taught performer on two dozen mostly unique wind instruments endeavours to add leaf blowing to his resume.

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Ryan White’s Good Ol’ Freda is a charming footnote to the Beatles history, telling the formerly untold story of the young Liverpudlian, Freda Kelly, who was hired by Brian Epstein as a secretary and ended up managing the Beatles fan club, answering mail and obtaining autographs with an admirable dedication. She was just 17 when she began her 11-year employment and she dispenses some surprising nuggets as the film progresses, mostly to do with her special relationships with the lads’ parents, especially Richie’s (Ringo’s) mum. “Paul was agreeable, John could be grumpy,” she recalls. “Mr. and Mrs. Harrison loved the fame; Harry Harrison taught her to dance.” In the early days she seemed to have a crush on Paul one week and on John the next, and as the years went by her loyalty and integrity never wavered. The joy of the Beatles from 1961 buoys the film and the soundtrack brings it all back through the use of 19 originals that the band would later cover (Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and the Cookies’ “Chains,” for example) and four bursts of energy by the fabulous foursome themselves used to great effect: “I Will,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Love Me Do” and “I Feel Fine.”

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Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, which examines three young Russian women on trial for performing a politically charged punk song in Moscow’s St. Christ Cathedral, is an apt example of the Brecht quote that opens the film: “Art is not a mirror but a hammer with which to shape it.” Directors Maxim Pozdorovkin and Max Lerner skilfully weave footage of musical protest street theatre with intimate portraits of the principals in their own words and those of two fathers and a mother to convey the fervor with which they pursued their goal  “as artists to change humanity, to be the voice of the voiceless, to change the system.” This chronicle of their bravery lingers long after the movie ends.

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As Time Goes By In Shanghai, Uli Gaulke’s loving look at the Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band, so-called because it’s been performing daily in the bar of Shanghai’s art deco wonder since Christmas Day, 1980 -- and whose members range in age from mid-60s to upper 80s – is no “Sentimental Journey.” Rather it’s a tribute to six musicians as they prepare to make an appearance at the North Sea Jazz festival in Rotterdam. Their style evolved from listening to old records and their playing carries the charm of another age. Their stories, too. Memories of the ballrooms of old Shanghai dovetail with the Cultural Revolution crackdown on the arts but it’s the flirtatiousness of Mr. Bao, the drummer with the band’s young female singer and the humour of Mr. Sun, the saxophonist that captivate. When Sun is hospitalized in Rotterdam, he sings the funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony. And when the bassist, Mr. Li, describes how he fell for the bass because of the indescribable deep passion he heard in the beginning of Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony, you realize yet again that music is a universal language.

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Toronto-based Peter Mettler, the subject of a retrospective at this year’s Hot Docs, used the extensive technical facilities of the Royal theatre to present Live Cinema, in which the filmmaker worked with a pre-existing music track by Geir Jenssen (who performs under the name Biosphere) and a four-channel mixing board (made by DERIVATIVE) with many options for inserting and blending film and audio clips into images that appear onscreen. Mettler, who has an extensive interest in music (and plays electronic chamber music), acknowledged after the show that a lot of his films are structured like music. He’s been doing these improvisations since completing Gambling, Gods and LSD about ten years ago. It’s as if he’s inviting the audience to “relax and float downstream” in the manner of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Over a strong ambient pulse, the images begin out of a foggy northern lake. For the next 45 minutes this refreshing visual-aural tour touched on outer space, the familiar lava flow from The End of Time and moments from other Mettler magic from paramecia to the double helix. The music was squarely at the service of the images as the images poured out in a random puddle of connectivity.

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Forced to abandon his familial Silesian estate as Soviet troops marched westward at the close of WWII, by 1947 the teenaged Chris Strachwitz had made his way to America where his passion for records and roots music eventually led him to found the Arhoolie label and become one of the giants of the niche recording industry. Strachwitz was guided by an unerring sense of what he liked; at first it was New Orleans traditional jazz. His love affair with making records began with a trip with folklorist Mark McCormick to “a Houston joint I’ll never forget.” Lightnin’ Hopkins was “hurting, making up stuff, making up poetry on the spot in the beer joint.” Hopkins’ moving “Tom Moore Blues” spurred the two to discover the farm in Navasota, Texas that was the impetus for the song. That’s where they found Mance Lipscomb.

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As McCormick remembered it: “This man had the whole history of rural black families in his head.” Strachwitz made Lipscomb the first of countless artists who would carry the Arhoolie (which means “field holler”) banner for 50 years. Bluesmen Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, Big Mama Thornton, Buddy Guy, Robert Pete Williams and Hopkins, Cajun superstar Clifton Chenier, Tex-Mex guru Flaco Jimenez as well as lesser known musicians from Texas, southwest Louisiana and even Appalachia are all testament to a man who “didn’t want to record things I don’t like.” And it helped his company immeasurably that he was the publisher of Country Joe and the Fish’s anti-Vietnam anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.” Especially after its exposure at Woodstock. There’s nothing inauthentic about Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling’s portrait of  “a classic record man” as Ry Cooder calls him and nothing inauthentic about the music depicted in This Ain’t No Mouse Music -- a clear-eyed documentary that took eight years to make.

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Reuben Atlas’ The Brothers Hypnotic follows eight of Phil Cohran’s 23 offspring as they forge a career for the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble through fierce independence and musical smarts, moving from street performances to playing with Prince and  Mos Def. But the film is also a tribute to the musical training their father gave them: “Long tones were the first things we ever learned. It’s the essence. One note. It’s meditation and it connects you to the universe. And because anything that’s worth anything lasts long.” The elder Cohran played trumpet with Sun Ra among others, but was at least as well known for his work with Chicago’s African-American community and his Afro arts centre. Just as important as their musical education was the self love and sense of identity he taught them, which enabled them to inspire and bring joy and happiness to people. You can enjoy them  live July 27 in a free concert at Harbourfront Centre.

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When you’re lost in Juarez these days, you’re in the murder capital of the world (3622 in 2010, for example – El Paso, Texas across the Rio Grande had five that year). Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura is a cinéma vérité look at the Mexican drug cartels’ pop culture influence on a narco corrido singer, Edgar Quintero, with stars in his eyes and bullets in his belt, set against a crime scene investigator who must mask his identity to protect his life in Juarez. The singer makes the brutal life of a cartel member glamorous; fans on both sides of the border eat this stuff up. One journalist puts it in perspective: “Narcos represent limitless power but they are a symptom of a dead society; 92 per cent of murders have not been investigated.” Quintero takes a trip to Culiacán, in the heart of the northwestern state of Sinaloa. Schwarz follows him into a beautiful cemetery with big tombs filled with young dead men.

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AJ Schnack and David Wilson’s We Always Lie To Strangers lifts the veneer off the showbiz mecca that is Branson, Missouri, a town of 10,000 in the Ozark mountains that is the Las Vegas of middle-American musical entertainment. It’s also a bastion of conservatism and heavily Republican. Exuberant as its performers are they would be hard-pressed to find an audience here in Toronto. Well, there’s just no accounting for taste. And in the middle of the place where the Osmonds, the late Andy Williams and Larry Welk (Lawrence’s son) all filled theatres for years, are the Lennon family, staunch Democrats, blessedly flag-waving and genuinely family-oriented, lured to Branson by Welk (the Lennon Sisters were a staple of the 1960s’ Lawrence Welk Show). The filmmakers’ skill enables us to see the struggles, artistic, economic and political of a world we would never want to imagine while making its participants human nonetheless.

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Two of the most compelling films of the year have recently opened in downtown Toronto, elusive, elliptical, their images propelled by rich soundtracks.


Even though none of the characters in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder (his follow-up to the Palme D’Or-winning Tree of Life) are musicians, the film’s musical component rivals that of any film released of late. This exploration of love (both sacred and profane) by the masterful collagist of image and sound revolves around a taciturn strong male played by Ben Affleck and two women he loves. One, Marina (Olga Kurylenko, whose occasional voiceover chronicles the course of her ardour), a foreigner with a ten-year-old daughter, is drawn to him while holidaying at Mont Saint-Michel (“The Wonder”) in Normandy. The other, Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old flame whose prime animus is religion, reconnects with him when he moves with Marina back to Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

“Newborn, I fell into the flame. You brought me back to life.” With these words Marina begins this über-romantic rhapsody and it’s her character that speaks to us of passion, unhappiness and love for her child. A priest (Javier Bardem) talks directly to Jesus with a similar passion, unhappiness and love for those unable to help themselves.

To the soundtrack: It’s not only the extraordinary use of Wagner’s “Prelude to Act One” from Parsifal which elevates the Mont Saint-Michel episode – in fact, only Lars von Trier’s alchemy with the prelude from Tristan und Isolde in Melancholia can compare among recent Wagnerian film moments – it’s the way Malick piles on phrase upon phrase with (often) unrecognizable bits of many works, among them Haydn’s The Seasons and Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite no. 2, the second and third movements of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, the third movement of Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 to Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead.

The music adds depth and purpose to what we see onscreen. It gives flight to Emmanuel Lubezki’s rapturous camerwork and underpins Malick’s own ecstatic aesthetic rooted in the wonders of the natural world. When humans connect with it, so much the better.


Shane Carruth’s first film, Primer (2004), has spent the last several years being watched and devoured by many fans, hungry for the meaty morsels hidden in its time travelling framework. Upstream Color, his second feature, is a mesmerizing, trippy cinematic playpen touching on transformation and love, loss of identity and the transcendence of nature. Lines from Thoreau’s Walden punctuate the script, along with orchids that house white worms. The worms are the conduit to drug the movie’s Everywoman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), but piglets also fall under their spell.

Kris is kidnapped, drugged and stripped of her former life by Thief (Thiago Martins). She begins a new life with Jeff (Shane Carruth), the moments of which don’t always follow a straight temporal path. Blue orchids presage a meeting at a pig farm with other victims. No doubt all will become clearer over the next several years. In the meantime, the director’s sharp sensual eye and coruscating sound design keep us in rapt attention. Corruth, a trained mathematician and former software engineer, seems to enjoy engineering human souls, to borrow from the late Josef Skvorecky.

Corruth wrote, directed, produced, acted in, co-edited and wrote the unnerving electronic score for Upstream Color. One night Kris is awakened by mysterious high-pitched sounds. Then she realizes she’s hearing very low sounds as well. Soon it’s music to our ears. There’s a motif that recurs of different characters rolling rocks down the inside of large sewer pipes with great panache. Rarely has an accompanying sound been as playful or as essential.


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After “The Three Lennys” in 2011, its 19-event exhaustive examination of Lenny Bruce, Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival knew what it would do for an encore: TJFF’s sidebar series in 2012 was “The Sound of Movies: Masters of the Film Score.” With special guests, composers David Shire and Mychael Danna, leading the way, Toronto audiences were treated to a celebration of the Jewish gene’s musical genius.

For this year’s edition of the TJFF (, which began on April 12, there’s no such overt attention being paid to the role of music in Jewish life, but there are a number of films that create an identity through music.

Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg

Pierre-Henry Salfati’s Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self-Portrait tells the riveting story of the iconic French musician in his own words, no mean feat since he died in 1991. Yet the conceit works brilliantly as a way into the mind of this man who would hear people say “God he’s ugly,” when he was onstage. He calls his face “ravaged” and says “I was misogyny incarnate,” but he romped with Anna Karina, had a child (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with Jane Birkin and wrote two of his most famous songs – “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” and “Bonnie and Clyde” – for Brigitte Bardot.

Born Lucien Ginzburg, he became Serge out of nostalgia for Russia (“I am Slav in my soul”), a country his parents left after the revolution. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was “his first revelation,” but he couldn’t play it the way his father could. And his father was a harsh critic. Still, once his father died, he felt close to him through classical music.

Art Tatum, Rachmaninoff, Berg and Chopin moved him and he turned part of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 into a pop song.

The film begins with a live concert near the end of his life (he died a month short of his 63rd birthday in March 1991), a veritable love-in thanks to his fans. Many of his revelations are accompanied by his own collection of videos, with movie pals Jean Gabin and Michel Simon or his daughter playing the piano under his tutelage. He drops personal and professional nuggets along the way. He was haunted by the Occupation when he was forced to wear a star and carry an axe into the woods for protection. He was an architecture student playing piano in a bar when he met Boris Vian (a major influence). Jacques Brel told him he’d only get ahead once he realized he was a crooner. Needless to say, that’s what happened.

Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond was only three years younger than Gainsbourg; his more prosaic route to success is examined in Samantha Peters’ Neil Diamond: Solitary Man. Gifted with knack of writing pop songs with musical and emotional hooks, Diamond took years to discover who he was. Ironically, that allowed him, following a number of sold-out shows at L.A.’s Greek Theatre, to become “the Jewish Elvis.”

As David Wild of Rolling Stone says: “He was selling sensitivity, raw sensitivity that’s not allowed anymore.” This taut BBC documentary serves up all you’d ever want to know about the creation of  “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “I Am, I Said” from the creator himself. As well as fine archival footage of Diamond at The Bitter End in the 1960s, plus talking heads from record execs to Neil Sedaka and Robbie Robertson.

My Father and the Man in Black Johnny Saul Guitar 1962 PRINT

Diamond began working with legendary record producer Rick Rubin a few years ago, after Rubin revived Johnny Cash’s career with American Recordings when the man in black covered “Solitary Man.”  An intriguing addition to the Cash iconography is Jonathan Holiff’s My Father and the Man in Black, in which a son’s desire to discover a father he never knew leads him down the path of showbiz arcana: Holiff’s father Saul managed Johnny Cash, when the singer wasn’t the most reliable act in show business. And Holiff fils has the phone recordings, the audiotape journals, the letters and the memento-filled boxes to prove it. What the film may lack in style, it makes up for in substance.

Second Movement for Piano and Sewing

A low-key hymn to finding love amidst the loneliness of urban life, Marco Del Fiol’s Second Movement for Piano and Needlework is a curious piece of cross-cultural pollination set in Sao Paolo’s Jewish quarter. After leaving the park where she’s been sketching dress designs, a woman is drawn to a modal tune on a piano being played by a Korean man. We watch these strangers continue their workaday lives until by chance they meet again. The pianist is sweet and so, in its simplicity, is this minimal movie.


In 1980, Neil Diamond starred in an updated version of The Jazz Singer (the songs he wrote for it made the soundtrack album a hit). In 1959, Jerry Lewis starred in The Jazz Singer for the TV show, Startime. TJFF is showing a restored version of this well-regarded vintage nugget on a program with Mehrnaz Saeedvafa’s short film, Jerry and Me. Before you scoff, the stars of two subsequent films directed by The Jazz Singer’s director, Ralph Nelson, went on to win Best Actor Academy Awards – Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Fields Cliff Robertson in Charly. Ms. Saeedvafa, meanwhile, confesses in her film clip-packed 38 minutes that “the hero of her childhood [in pre-revolution Iran] was the one and only Jerry Lewis.” She personalizes colonialism, the CIA, Bresson and poetic cinema, the Iran-Iraq war, feminism and fear of the atomic bomb. And as a bonus, we see Jerry Lewis dubbed into Farsi. If you think that’s farcical, you’re right.

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What Joe Papp and “Shakespeare in the Park” did for Don Byron: “When you got people of colour doing Shakespeare, then Shakespeare was mine. And then Sondheim was mine, Mahler was mine and Bartok was mine.” What Don Byron did for Tracie Holder’s and Karen Thorsen’s straightforward documentary, Joe Papp in Five Acts: he composed the tuneful, lively score for it.

Three films unavailable for previewing promise some intriguing musical insights.

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, directed by Michael Kantor focuses on the central question: Why has the Broadway musical proven to be such fertile territory for Jewish artists of all kinds? Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian that Laurent Bouzereau’s Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir  “is strongest in elucidating the effects his life has had on his movies. Before this, I didn't realise how closely the 2002 film The Pianist was based on precise childhood memories of the Krakow ghetto. It is the film he says he is proudest of now.” Danny Ben-Moshe’s Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema tells of the 2000 year old Indian Jewish community and its formative place in the Indian film industry. Who knew? Nu?

Two very fine period pieces have recently opened in downtown Toronto.


The performance of music is integral to the plot of The Sapphires, which is based on the true story of an Aboriginal Australian girl group who entertained the American troops in Vietnam in 1968. Their Irish manager had to teach the three sisters and their cousin the soul music they sang, but for a few months they all rode the exhilarating entertainment highway. There are huge sociological implications to their feel good story but as we discover as the credits roll, it’s the love of singing that has sustained the lead singer for all the years that elapsed since, a gift that she shared with her own extensive family.

Until 1967 Australian Aborigines were classified as “flora and fauna.” Children were routinely adopted or stolen by Caucasians who raised them. Inspired by a true story of the lost generation of Aborigines who lived with white families, Wayne Blair’s film begins in 1958 with a young trio harmonizing a spiritual-like hymn. Ten years later they’re singing country tunes in a talent show where they’re recognized by a transplanted Irishman wannabe drummer, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), whose great piece of advice is that they should sing soul not Charley Pride. From there Sam and Dave’s “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar,” puts “love and affection to the bone” and the movie takes off.

Given that soul music is about being desperate to retrieve what has been lost, the girls’ social status feeds their musical language, they become “The Sapphires” and it’s off to Saigon.

Chris O’Dowd -- seen lately on cable and laptops in Girls as the investment banker who had a brief marital fling with wild child artist Jessa (Jemima Kirke) -- has a constant twinkle in his eye and smile on his face. Funny thing is, he seems to love soul music as much, if not more, than The Sapphires themselves. And he’s crazy about them.


Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa is the story of two 17-year-olds, best girlfriends. Set in the London of 1962 when Britain was rife with “Ban the Bomb” fervor, you can hear Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Les Paul, Sidney Bechet and Thelonious Monk punctuating the narrative. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) ride the rails of left-wing politics and poetics as they play out their bohemian rebelliousness. Ginger is the more grounded of the pair and it’s her perspective through which we see the action. A turn in the plot plays havoc with the girls’ friendship and nearly derails a nicely spun story.

Still, hitchhiking to “Apache” by The Shadows can’t be beat. And any movie that gives us Christina Hendricks (she plays Ginger’s mother) singing “The Man I Love,” bookended by Little Richard and Chubby Checker must be seen.

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“This is not a retirement home -- this is a madhouse,” the inimitable Maggie Smith announces in the ebullient new film Quartet. But what’s to be done when the diva refuses to sing?  The show must go on, of course.

Each October 10, Beecham House, a fictional home for retired opera singers and other musicians, celebrates Verdi’s birthday with a fundraiser for the residence. When Jean, an operatic grande dame (played by the equally grand, Dame Smith) and ex-wife of Reggie (Tom Courtenay) unexpectedly moves in, Wilf (Billy Connolly), Cissy (Pauline Collins) and Reggie see their plans for the latest bash unravel. The titular quartet of concert performers is thus inadvertently reunited, unleashing all manner of grudges and glories.

Quartet (just now in theatres) is a rarity. Ronald Harwood’s highly enjoyable screen adaptation of his 1999 play manages to fuse the acting talents of some of the UK’s finest (Michael Gambon is also featured) and the directorial debut of 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman with a cornucopia of musical excerpts. Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto, Puccini’s Tosca, G&S’s The Mikado, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet and “Military” symphony, a Boccherini string quintet and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach are all fodder for the cast. Harwood was inspired by Tosca’s Kiss, Daniel Schmid’s loving documentary depiction of the residents of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, which Verdi founded in Milan as lodgings for elderly singers who needed material help.

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Music percolates everywhere in Beecham House (named after Sir Thomas) with the residents exuberantly playing out Bette Davis’ maxim “Old age is not for sissies.” As they prepare for the house fundraiser, their love of life is infectious. And with many of them portrayed by musicians, from soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones (unforgettable performing “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca) to former BBC Symphony principal clarinetist Colin Bradbury and versatile trumpet player Ronnie Hughes (his resume even includes the Beatles’ “Martha, My Dear”), the quality of the musical content is assured. Be sure to stay through the beginning of the credits where many of the musicians are pictured in their younger days.

Quartet seems poised to appeal to the same audiences that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel the sleeper hit of last summer.

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