We still can’t be sure if the high percentage of people developing Alzheimer’s disease, usually at one end of the age spectrum, or autism, at the other, is really increasing in an era of longer lives spent surrounded by environmental degradation or if we simply have sharper diagnostic tools today. Whatever the causes, recent studies indicate that creative pursuits in general—and music, in particular—appear to unlock parts of the brain formerly considered unreachable.
In Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, the famous neurologist writes about nonmusicians who suddenly start composing after being struck by lightning, and severe amnesiacs who can play entire Bach sonatas from memory. The subject comes up repeatedly during this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, which features several titles delving into such music-tinged mysteries.
This intriguing connection is made most explicit in Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (screening September 27 and October 1), an unsparing account of the great singer-guitarist’s final tour after announcing his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Even as Campbell’s situation deteriorates, he manages to pull off musical feats beyond most people’s abilities. The same theme is fictionalized, less effectively, in Una Vida: A Fable of Music and the Mind (September 30, October 3 and 6), in which a neuroscientist encounters a jazz singer losing her memory but not her talent.
There’s little music but some hope in Flore (October 1, 2, and 4), about French documentarian Jean-Albert Lièvre’s attempts to improve the life of his once-vibrant mother through focused attention and physical activity. (The director’s self-serving narration, in forced English, makes the movie a bit hard to watch.)
If Glen Campbell offers an extreme lesson in holding hard onto what’s fast slipping away, British singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins guides us on a tour of existential reclamation. The Possibilities Are Endless (September 25 and 30, and October 1), filmed over several years since the former Orange Juice frontman—also responsible for the hit “A Girl Like You”—was waylaid by two cerebral hemorrhages, details the small steps needed to resume a full life that’s far from finished.
“Everyone in Britain knows Edwyn Collins,” declared Edward Lovelace—who directed the doc with James Hall—from Lisbon. “And people were really interested to find out what happened to him. When we met him, he had speech aphasia: he would take weeks to remember the words cat and house. But he could sing perfectly.”
Filmmaking partner Hall also spoke with the Straight from Portugal, where the two were shooting some TV commercials.
“What we found,” Hall said, “was that Edwyn was making new music and now his language was incredibly direct, and it was really about a search for identity. Remarkably, every time we went for an interview, his speech would become better and more fluid. At one point, we asked his wife, Grace, ‘Is it okay that we’re doing this?’ And she said, ‘You’ve got to keep coming back; he knows he has to work hard to do this, and so he does it!’ ”
Lovelace thinks that ostensibly healthy viewers can learn much by observing the struggles of those with troubled brains.
“If you suffer this kind of trauma,” he said, “of course you hope things come back, that the brain can relearn, like relearning old lyrics. This is the journey of one man to find himself again. He was a rock star and had to learn to be something else.”
“There is a lot of power in that message of reinvention,” Hall added. “We made the film in an immersive way, to suggest the confusion he went through. The brain is a landscape, in this case a ravaged one, with the wind sending memories this way and that. So the film’s not very linear, as we tried to capture his view of the world.”
The film’s blurry impressions are quite different from what the Brits caught for their previous music-related feature, Katy Perry’s Part of Me—one of the highest-grossing music docs of all time—which captured the popster’s world tour. But these efforts are more related than they might seem.
“Among the filmmakers we admire,” Lovelace stated, “there’s always one project they were born to make—like Gus Van Sant and Milk. The Edwyn Collins film was that for us. With Katy Perry, we learned how to commit everything to what we were doing. And by the time we were almost done with Possibilities, we knew we would succeed even if no one ever got to see it. What did we learn from him? That creativity is hard work, no matter how or why it happens, and that whatever else we do now has to have a lot of soul to it.”
Several other VIFF items, such as the animated Rocks in My Pocket (October 4, 5, and 7), depict people shadowed by the black dogs of depression. And other films examine the challenges of those hemmed in by physical constraints. Becoming Bulletproof (October 6 and 9) examines the small travails and bigger victories of young adults with various disabilities who come together to shoot a movie.
“Honestly, when they asked me to document their efforts,” Michael Barnett recalled on the line from his Los Angeles home, “I thought I could make a film about filmmaking, just through a different lens. I had every kind of misconception. But the minute I went into that camp, I was blown away. Everyone was working 15- or 16-hour days. Even more striking was how inclusive the whole thing was.”
The first-time feature director didn’t minimize obstacles faced by the participants he met at Vermont’s Zeno Mountain Farm, where rehearsals happened for the western comedy they wanted to shoot.
“This community has very severe disabilities, particularly A J”—he said of one principal actor—“who was living a very frustrated life with cerebral palsy. I watched him get completely transformed into someone with a lot to contribute.”
Another actor, Jeremy, has Williams syndrome, the high-functioning disability found in last year’s film Gabrielle, about a Montreal singer. “People with Williams are wired different,” the young filmmaker said. “They’re literally born to act and make music. All the people at Zeno are totally engaged when working, but the rest of the time they’re struggling with ADD and everything else.”
Like Lovelace and Hall, Barnett makes commercials and promos for a living, and the pro bono nature of Zeno appealed to him. He’ll get to share that Bulletproof spirit with festgoers in October.
“We’re bringing the whole gang in four or five RVs,” he revealed, “and we’re doing a whole West Coast tour. Remember that no one is getting paid; they’re choosing to be there, choosing to make a movie, and choosing to be kind to each other. Overall, this project made me think that everyone is, in fact, capable of this level of creativity, but most people never access that portion of their brain. Society expects so little from people with disabilities, and more, really, could be expected from the rest of us. Something like this makes you think about your own life, whatever its capacity, and what it takes to be given a real purpose in the world.”