VIFF 2012 Review: How To Grow A Band

Bluegrass phenom Chris Thile (extreme right) launches his new band The Punch Brothers (background) in How To Grow A Band.

Okay, you’re probably asking why I’m still doing reviews from the Vancouver International Film Festival when it ended ten days ago, right? Well this review will be the last one. A wrap-up of the festival will follow the next day.

How To Grow A Band isn’t about a rock band. It’s about a bluegrass band that brings a unique sound to bluegrass music. It’s an eye-opener of the challenges of starting a new band in any style of music.

The documentary starts as mandolinist Chris Thile is starting the show for his band The Punch Brothers. The film then goes to the early years of Chris Thile. It first starts back to Chris in 1989 at the age of 8. His father Scott was a bluegrass musician and Chris easily followed in his footsteps. He soon became what you’d call a ‘bluegrass prodigy’, winning mandolin competitions at a very young age.

His father performed at That Pizza Place, a popular bluegrass hangout in Southern California. There he met the Watkins siblings Sean and Sara whose parents also performed there. The three along with Scott formed the band Nickel Creek. They started off playing traditional bluegrass but they switched in their teens to ‘progressive bluegrass’ by mixing traditional bluegrass sounds to alternative rock. They had a career that included being featured on recordings from Dolly Parton, the Chieftains and Glen Phillips as the Mutual Admiration Society. They opened five 2003 shows for John Mayer and two of their albums were produced by Allison Krauss; both of which hit Gold status. They had a career that included six albums and four Grammy nominations including a 2001 win in the Best Bluegrass Album category for This Side. In 2006, the members decided to part different ways because they wanted to expand their musical horizons and held their Farewell (For Now) Tour that ended in 2007.

For Chris Thile, it was exiting Nickel Creek and entering the Punch Brothers who were firstly Chris’s backup band as a solo artist and called How To Grow A Band up until 2008. The Punch Brothers were to take bluegrass in another new direction as part of the ‘newgrass’ movement. The direction they wanted to take bluegrass in was in the direction of ‘chamber music’: a fusion of bluegrass with modern classical. The band consisted of his childhood friend Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Greg Garrison on bass.

The documentary takes the viewer through the first two years of the band when they were first recording together to when they first perform together to the periods when they want to take their talent and creativity in new directions for the group. It not only shows them performing together in their sessions but it also shows the radio interviews they gave for BBC radio for their first live performance together, in Glasgow, Scotland in 2006. They’d continue to tour much of England before reaching the United States. They’d perform their The Blind Leaving The Blind suite at Carnegie Hall in 2007. They’d then change their name to the Punch Brothers once signed onto Nonesuch Records.

The documentary showcases the good times they have together performing, signing autographs and being together. It also showed the tensions and arguments the members had while on tour and preparing for recording. It reminds us that even though they are a unified band, they are also five musicians with creative wants and needs of their own. The members even had side projects of their own two. It’s a matter of them finding a balance between personal needs and group needs in order to function well both as individuals and group members. The documentary also features interviews and opinions with the industry professionals the Punch Brothers work with along the way. The things they say about working as a group and of showbiz demands are words that could be said for any group of any music genre. The documentary doesn’t shy away when bassist Greg Garrison makes the decision to leave the band for family responsibilities. It’s sudden but the group is understanding. The group then hire Paul Kowert as the replacement bassists, as seen at the end.

The documentary is a good outlook on a band that’s just starting out. We’re reminded that even when there are musicians with famed reputations, starting a new band is not an easy thing to do. It’s still as risky work as when they tried to get their very first big break. One thing the documentary leaves out of the picture is the personal lives of the members, especially the fact that Chris married at 21 and divorced 18 months later. In fact it was Chris’ messy divorce that inspired their The Blind Leaving The Blind suite. The only one where there was some significant focus on was that of Greg because that would be the reason why he’d eventually leave the Punch Brothers. I guess it was the director’s choice to focus on the members as band members rather than showcase their personal lives.

The documentary not only shows the life of a band but also shows what being a bluegrass musician is like too. There’s not only home videos of Chris Thile as a child but of the other members too. Chris wasn’t the only one who started out young. All of the other members share similarities with Chris in their childhoods. Some were young professional performers at a young age too and Gabe was even a Star Search contestant at 9. Chris Eldridge’s father Ben Eldridge was a banjoist for the 70’s bluegrass band The Seldom Scene. Former Nickel Creek violinist Sara Watkins even talks about the importance of starting out young and performing like a pro as a child. This documentary is as much about the music and musicians as it is about a band in forming and developing.

This documentary also showed some ironies too. Chris and Gabe were part of a tight-knit bluegrass community from Southern California. In fact none of the Punch Brothers hail from Kentucky and the band currently base themselves in New York City. Also as ironic is that it’s Britain that first welcome the music and sound of the Punch Brothers before the Americans do. I always knew the British are more welcoming towards creativity and new sounds but it surprised me how welcoming they were to bluegrass. I will admit that I myself can’t tell the difference between basic country music and bluegrass country. One thing I will say is that the documentary made me like bluegrass music a lot more.

In case you wondered what has happened to the Punch Brothers since 2008 when this documentary ends its footage, they released the albums Antifogmatic in 2010 and Who’s Feeling Young Now? in 2012. They also recorded the track Dark Days for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games and have made appearances on the Late Show With David Letterman and the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. They’re very popular in Europe and are currently touring there as of press time. They’ve also done work with their own side projects too. Most notably Gabe has performed backup with many notable country musicians, provided the violin for the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack and performed with the Dave Rawlings Machine. As for Chris, he’s been the busiest. He completed a mandolin concerto in 2009 which has since been performed by a consortium of orchestras in the United States. He  recorded The Great Rodeo Sessions in 2011 with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and fiddle player Stuart Duncan and they even performed together on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Most recently he won a $500,000 grant from the annual MacArthur Fellows program.

I was actually designated to be an usher for this documentary leading people to their seats in the dark. This was only the second film I saw in its entirety as an usher. Great film. Right after my ushering duties for the movie were done, I was to distribute ads in promoting their Vancouver show. I took an interest in the Punch Brothers after seeing this documentary and learn more about what they’ve done since the documentary. It’s great seeing what they do and I wish them all the best in the future.

How To Grow A Band is as much a story of the Punch Brothers from the birth of the band to their fruition as it is a story about the music business and a statement about being a bluegrass musician. Anyone who’s interested in getting their band off the ground in any genre of music should see this.

BONUS: If my review got you interested in the Punch Brothers, here’s their official website:

BONUS FOR VANCOUVERITES: As for their Vancouver show I was talking about, the Punch Brothers are coming to Vancouver on November 24th. They will be performing at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. Here’s where to go to buy tickets:


Oscar 2011: The Buzz And The Biz

Well how about it? Exactly thirty-four days have passed since the Academy has given out the golden statuettes. The box office results of the nine Best Picture nominees also have a lot to say too. Some good, some bad.

Box Office Mojo does it every year. They have charts of the Oscar nominees and winners. They also have a special Best Picture chart where they divide the grosses into Pre-Nom (before the nominations are announced), Post-Nom (after the nominations are announced) and Post-Awards: after the Oscars are decided. Here are the charts of reference:

    2011 Best Picture Nominees

    2011 Nominees: All Categories

This year’s charts shows some interesting stats involving the nominees. Four movies–The Tree of Life, Moneyball, The Help and Midnight In Paris–had already completed their box office runs long before the nominations. Some opened again after the nominations were announced but it attracted modest-size crowds compared to its heydays months earlier. War Horse opened late in the year but it had already neared its total gross just before the nominations were announced and the nominations had very little effect on its gross.

The movies with the biggest boosts of the Oscar nominations were Hugo, The Descendants, The Artist and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Hugo grossed most of its total share before the nominations but the Oscar nominations helped increase its gross an additional $13 million before the Oscars. Oscar wins helped give Hugo an extra $4 million even though it was already on DVD just two days after the Oscars. The Descendants was another movie that was already doing well before the Oscars possibly because of George Clooney’s star power. Nevertheless this film had the biggest post-nominations gross of all nine Best Picture nominees with $31 million including an additional $3.9 million after the Oscars were awarded.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close and The Artist were the two Best Picture nominees whose grosses more than doubled after the nominations. Both films did so-so before the Oscar nominations with Extremely Loud grossing just under $12 million and The Artist grossing just over $12 million. The nominations would change lots as Extremely Loud has grossed an additional $20 million since the nominations. The Artist would also gross an additional $19.4 million between the nominations and awards but its Oscar wins including the Best Picture win would help give it an additional $11.4 million to date currently standing at $43.3 million. The Artist is the only Best Picture nominee this year to gross even as much as $5 million after the awards.

The biggest surprise about this year’s set of Best Picture nominees isn’t necessarily because there are nine instead of ten but that only one, The Help, has grossed more than $100 million either before or after the Oscars. Even last year, there were five that would at least have a total gross of more than $100 million. The average gross of this year’s Best Picture nominees of $69.6 million is actually the lowest average since the more-than-five nominees system was reintroduced at the 2009 Oscars and the lowest since the 2006 Oscars fivesome. This year’s hit movies were left out of the cold. There was no Disney/Pixar blockbuster that found itself in that group. There was no movie with a lot of Oscar buzz that caught on in a big way. Even the family-friendly Hugo didn’t hit the $100 million mark. A shame since the movie cost $170 million to make. Even seeing how The Artist hasn’t even hit the $50 million mark tells quite a bit about the box office crowds. Its gross isn’t as low as say the The Hurt Locker was two years ago but it still says a message not just about box office crowds but even the Academy and their voting, how nowadays crowd fanfare doesn’t mean an awful lot in choosing Best Picture.

So there you have it. The rundown of this year’s business involving the Oscar nominees and winners. Each year tells a different story on both the Academy’s voting and the box office outlook. Next year’s should also tell a lot too. Stay tuned.

The Hollywood Theatre: Gone But Beloved By Many

On the evening of May 29, 2011, I was at the Hollywood Theatre for their last double-bill showing. It was a bittersweet night with a huge attendance. The night not only marked the end of a Vancouver landmark as we know it but a family business too.

The Hollywood Theatre was opened in the West Broadway area of Vancouver back on Thanksgiving weekend of October 24, 1935. Reginald Fairleigh, a Vancouver cinema mogul, and his wife Margaret had the theatre built in the Great Depression so that her children could have jobs. At the time, there were already 26 other movie theatres in Vancouver. The theatre opened with the double-bill of Will Rogers in Life Begins At 40 and Thelma Todd in Lightning Strikes Twice. Tickets for the double-bills were a dime or 15 cents for a balcony seat. Men had to wear a tie and women had to wear a dress. A man tempted to make out with his lady was given a small sheet of paper saying, “Treat your date as if she were your mother.” Over time, many famous faces and many great movies graced the screen. Its tagline which existed until its last days was: “Pick O’ The Best Plays.”

Styles of movies changed and the theatre would face rivalries from television, pay-pre-view and VCR but the Hollywood continued success. Also in place even in present day were many things done back when it first started, like double-bills, taking straight cash at the ticket booth, and most importantly the Fairleigh family owning and operating the theatre. The closest thing to a big change was the start of the ‘odd double-bill’ back in 1990. This phenomenon started when My Left Foot and Rambo were aired one weekend. Some first thought it was a bad mix. It actually was a success because they attracted two completely different movie crowds that were both big in size. The ‘odd double-bill’ was kept up in many different versions in the years since.

Over the years, I’ve taken a liking to the Hollywood Theatre.  Just a fact about myself: when I first moved to Vancouver from Winnipeg in February 2000, I was just a casual moviegoer with a general interest in movies for someone at my age. Nothing big. But after I saw American Beauty just days after I arrived in Vancouver, that movie and that year’s Oscar race to go with it changed my life. 

Okay, going back to the Hollywood Theatre, I first saw a movie at the Theatre in 2001, shortly after moving to Vancouver from Winnipeg for the second time, and this time for good. I saw them as a second run movie theatre that played not just any movies for a second run but good ones too. I am unsure exactly what the first movie I saw there was. I’ve been asking myself ever since I learned of the closure what the first movie I saw there was; I believe it was Almost Famous. A few weeks later, I saw Gladiator. I came to like the theatre for its double-bills and for the best price of movie popcorn in town. Another thing I liked was their photocopied program of scheduled movies over a six-week period. I’d frequently pass by to pick one up. One noteworthy thing about the program is that in its brief review of the movie, they always had the director’s name and in bold. I consider that something.  A couple of years ago, I came across the newspaper article hanging in a frame. I saw it was from 1935 and talked of the opening of the theatre.  When I saw that I thought “Wow, 1935! This is definitely a piece of Vancouver history!”

Here’s some other excellent movies I saw over there: Mulholland Drive, City Of God, Downfall, Vera Drake, Lemony Snicket, Transamerica,  American Gangster, Changeling, Tropic Thunder, Another Year, it’s just too hard to remember them all . Yeah, I saw a couple of bad ones and the odd guilty pleasure now and then too, but the Hollywood never let me down. The most unique ‘odd double-bill’ I went to had to be the pairing of Bridget Jones: The Age of Reason and Vera Drake. Two movies with a British female lead character: two completely different films of quality. The Hollywood was really convenient when it would show certain popcorn movies and ‘Oscar buzzers’ I always wanted to see but missed during its main theatre run. I’d always check the newspaper to see what the Hollywood was showing. I also remember leaving my second job, which ends at 9pm, to rush out and take buses to the Hollywood. Even if the movie ended before midnight or past midnight, I didn’t mind bussing back home that late.

Hollywood also consists of a few movie-going milestones of mine which I’m quite proud of. The first is seeing City Of God in the spring of 2003 before most would later discover this gem on DVD. The second is A Serious Man the night before the 2009 Oscar nominations were announced. It’s an Oscar-time tradition of mine to see all five, or now ten, Best Picture nominees and seeing A Serious Man the night before the nominations were announced completed it for me right there and then!

On Monday May 23rd, which is Victoria Day, I went to the Hollywood with my cousin to see Another Year. It had been months since I had been there. As much as I like the Hollywood, I like going when there’s a movie I like or a movie I want to see but haven’t. Such was the case that day. Before I entered the theatre, I learned from the ticket taker that they would be closing and that there would be a farewell party over the weekend. That was a shock to me as well as to her.

One of the reasons for the demise is because of the current difficulties of the single-screen neighborhood theatre. Nowadays if a movie theatre is to do well, it either has to be a multiscreen cinemaplex or connected to a shopping mall. In the past ten years, Vancouver has seen a lot of single screen theatres go and end up crushed for developers to construct something new. There’s the Varsity Theatre near the University of British Columbia that ended years ago and is now developed into condo land. There was recently the Van East which ended in January and has had its inside worked in for new development. Even triple theatres like the New West Theatre and multiplexes Langley’s Willowbrook cinema closed and were developed into something new. Some multiplexes like the Granville 7 constantly face threats of closure. Currently there are only six single screen theatres in Vancouver; the independently owned Rio Theatre and Dunbar Cinema; the Festival Cinemas-owned Ridge and Park Theatres; and the organization-oriented Pacific Cinematheque and Vancity Theatre.

Another reason for its demise over the years is now of the many ways one could see film and its current ability to be accessed at no cost on the internet. I don’t want to get into a tirade about how Napster and Netflix get people with a selfish sense they have a ‘right’ to free entertainment, but I will say that movie websites like Netflix has made it so easy and affordable for one to have all the online movies they want at a monthly rate, it’s not only hit theatres hard but video stores hard too. Plus so many ways to watch movies, especially those that happened in the last 10 years like Youtube, in your airline seat, on your smartphone and even on your wristwatch. Makes the original ‘other’ ways like television, pay TV and VCR seem old and tame.

In the days before its closing weekend, I contemplated when to go to the farewell weekend. I was first thinking of Sunday only, then both Friday and Sunday. Also I was confused of what exactly was happening. What I heard at first, I interpreted that there would be a party going on in the theatre and that there would be a piano playing with all the movies silent. My mind does play tricks on me. When I returned on Thursday to take some pictures of the outside, I talked with the ticket-taker: Vince Fairleigh, the fourth generation Fairleigh to work at the Hollywood wo had been taking my tckets all these years. I told him I would miss it. Also in terms of the weekend festivities, I was left thinking of the same ‘party’ that I heard about on Monday.

Alice giving tickets one last time.

Friday the 27th came and I was to go with my friend to that ‘party’. The ticket taker at the door was an elderly lady: grandmother Alice Fairleigh well into her nineties! By the time I got in, I saw the ending of Cinema Paradiso. It wasn’t exactly a party but a showing of movies with speeches. After Cinema Paradiso ended, there were some speeches from professional actor and family friend Mackenzie Gray and from David Fairleigh Jr., the last Fairleigh to run the Hollywood. He gave some words about what the theatre was like in the past, including the ‘treat your date’ etiquette. He also talked of the experience of watching the movie in a theatre and how the new modern ways like cellphone and wristwatch can’t compare. Then began the final feature of the ‘closing double-bill’ which I will refer to later in this article. As it began, I left to check out the balcony. As I was taking some pictures, I noticed the door to the projectionist room was open and with a guest. I went into the room as well. I met David Jr. and we talked more. I learned a lot about the theatre and of the projector they had. He said “I’m going to miss the place,” not looking for sympathy. Then I returned to my friend in the theatre, after being away for almost half an hour. When the movie ended, the curtain closed. I thought I’d probably see in close on Sunday for the last time. As I was leaving, I saw Alice in the ticket booth and took some photos of her. I left wondering how Sunday will be like.

Sunday May 29th was a night of goodbyes but no one was going to shed a tear. All the family was here: grandmother Alice, David Jr. and wife, and all the Fairleigh sons with their families. The theatre was near-packed for this night, the final night. The night began with some applause to individuals. Then there was something unique that hasn’t happened in many decades but happened all weekend: a silent movie accompanied by a pianist. The pianist was Johnathan Benny, award winning director and cinematographer and good friend of Vince’s. The silent movie was The Goat which Buster Keaton directed and starred in. Many would forget that’s what the Hollywood did back when it first started. Even though it opened while ‘talkies’ were just starting, there were silent movies showed then too. It was fun to see the old film again and hear the piano played at the time in the way it was done: playing accompanying the many humorous, bizarre, dramatic and romantic moments of the film.

After The Goat ended, there were some speeches from family members like Alice, Vince and David Jr. David’s was notable because again he made the mention of the experience of watching a movie on a theatre. Despite that day being a bittersweet day, he sang the Charlie Chaplin song ‘Smile’. Then began the first of the final weekend’s double-bill Cinema Paradiso: a 1989 Italian film about Salvatore, a successful director, reminiscing about growing up in a smalltown’s theatre and learning projection running and filmmaking from the projectionist who just died. He returns to his hometown for the funeral and witnesses the Cinema Paradiso blown up. Vince picked the movie because the movie practically is what his life was all about: growing up in a movie theatre. The scene of when the grown Salvatore enters the dead Cinema Paradiso before it was blown up seemed almost synonymous with the Hollywood that weekend. At the end, the audience gave a huge applause. Mackenzie gave more thank yous but asked us to return to see the final movie of the night: Faster.

I left for a break in the lobby, taking more pictures and talking to people, especially many of the Fairleigh family including Vince’s brothers. Then I returned to the theatre to see what would be the last movie shown at the Hollywood: Faster– an action movie about a revenge mission starring The Rock. It seems odd for the Hollywood Theatre to show Faster after Cinema Paradiso but the mix of two was ironically appropriate for the closing weekend because it was part of the ‘odd double-bill’ tradition. And a double-bill of Cinema Paradiso and Faster doesn’t get any odder than that. I didn’t care too much about Faster. In fact I found it like your typical action movie with heavy emphasis on the shootings and car chases and featuring wooden overdramatic acting. Nevertheless I wanted to be there for the Hollywood’s last minutes. As The Rock left the screen, he had the honor of being the last face to grace the Hollywood’s screen. After the credits finished rolling, the curtains didn’t close. Instead some people walked around the screen area and checked some of the rooms around the screen. I then went upstairs to the balcony and said goodbye to the Fairleighs and wished them the best of luck in the future and best of luck for the theatre.

On the evening of Monday the 29th, the day after, I returned to the Hollywood. To my surprise, the neon lights were on. I saw the inside from the windows. Empty concessions, tables and chairs from the night, mop left out. Closings are never pretty. The future of the Theatre is a big question mark. I’ve been hearing a lot of tales about what will happen. Some say the developers want to either crush it or change it into something. I heard from others that Vince has partial ownership and that it will stay a theatre for at least five years. Despite all the talk of the possibilities for the Theatre, nothing was certain and closing weekend had to be treated like it was a goodbye.  Since nothing’s really definite despite the fact I’m hoping for it to reopen, I took the closing weekend as that goodbye and I’ll let time decide what happens. I plan on bussing by at least once a week to see if there will be any changes and exactly what. I hope whatever they do, if the Theatre runs again, they keep the inside exactly as is. Many people on review websites have said that entering the theatre is like stepping back in time. How many present movie theatres do you know of that do that?

I do hope for the best for the Fairleighs. I do hope for the best for the Hollywood Theatre. I do hope the new owners take good care of the Theatre. I do hope the younger generation learns to appreciate watching movies in a theatre. In fact I’m glad they aired Cinema Paradiso for the final weekend because it’s considered by many to be a ‘love letter’ to movies and movie lovers. Until then, thank you Hollywood Theatre for the memories and the experience.

Hollywood Theatre: 1935-2011

Favorite Actor Quotes

Okay. So for the first time, I put my journalism ambitions on hold and post something for my own leisure. This is a selection of quotes from actors over the years. Some are about the craft, some about the biz, some you may agree with, some you won’t, but I hope you like them. Most of which are from IMDB:

“What distinguishes the real actor from the pseudo is the passionate desire to know what is going on in the hearts and minds of people.”

-Beulah Bondi

“Nobody becomes an actor because they had a good childhood.”

– William H. Macy

“I’m not the Stanislavski kind of actor. I feel I have to communicate with the people in my scene.”

-Tom Cruise

“Method actors take a picture. Real actors paint a portrait.”

-Charles Loughton

“I like to play parts that are not at all like myself. I’m not the least bit exciting.”

-Mildred Dunnock

“If I was going to be broke I decided I might as well be with actors as anyone else. They were cheerful idiots and seemed to take it better.”

-Peter Finch

“I’ve never tried to learn the art of acting. I have been in the business for years but I still can’t tell what acting is or how it’s done.”

-Paul Muni

“I remember someone once said that the whole thing is to keep working and pretty soon they’ll think you’re good.”

-Jack Nicholson

“Study your craft and know who you are and what’s special about you. Find out what everyone does on a film set, ask questions and listen. Make sure you live life, which means don’t do things where you court celebrity, and give something positive back to our society.”

-Paul Newman

“An actor is an interpreter of other men’s words, often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not, a craftsman, a bag of tricks, a vanity bag, a cool observer of mankind, a child and at his best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on heaven and hell to mesmerize a group of innocents.”

-Alec Guinness

“An actor must interpret life and, in order to do so, must be willing to accept all the experiences life has to offer. In fact, he must seek out more of life than life puts at his feet. In the short span of his lifetime, an actor must learn all there is to know, experience all there is to experience, or approach that state as closely as possible. He must be superhuman in his efforts to store away in the core of his subconscious everything that he might be called upon to use in the expression of his art.”

-James Dean

“We’re all unique as actors. To yourself, you are unique, you have to think ‘I’m me, I’m not going to bunch myself with other people.’ Agents and producers have to get you into a box, to accommodate their limited imaginations.”

-Imelda Staunton