Movie Review - Band Together

I talked over the phone to Kurt Kolaja, the director of Band Together, the Maryland-made documentary playing at the Chesapeake Film Festival on September 24th and 25th. The movie is about the Kent County Community Band in Chestertown. Chestertown is about 50 miles east of Annapolis across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Kolaja introduces us to the area, not only the town but also the land around it, or what's commonly referred to as the Delmarva peninsula. He shows us not the entire 5,000 square miles that comprise the peninsula, but the five square miles that perhaps comprise Chestertown. Kolaja captures gorgeous-looking landscapes in wide-angle that slowly dissolve between one another as he himself narrates some statistics and preliminary facts.

The sequence is slow and deliberate, and occasionally amusing as in one shot that reveals an unlikely car wash. The subtle, visual humor and easy-going nature will no doubt remind older, WBOC viewers to the stories of Scorchy Tawes.

Scorchy Tawes was WBOC's and one of Delmarva's best-known residents. Ironically, he became so for merely telling the stories of Delmarva's least-known residents. When I mentioned Tawes, Kolaja recognized and appreciated the comparison. Tawes would seem to be a likely source of inspiration. When I asked Kolaja of other inspirations, he cited Charles Kuralt.

Kuralt was the CBS journalist who won a Peabody Award for his weekly TV segments called "On the Road." The Peabody Award cited that Kuralt got the award for his search to "capture the individuality of the people." What Kolaja loved was how Kuralt went out and met people, ordinary people, people who weren't athletes or rocket scientists, yet people who had something to say whether they knew it or not.

Like Charles Dickens, who is Kolaja's favorite author, it's all about valuing whatever it is those ordinary people have to say about their lives and trying to understand how those lives are important, and how we have to give those lives, all those lives, a voice. Kolaja acknowledges the challenge is making those voices interesting to others. Dickens did it and Kuralt did it. Tawes even did it.

The question is did Kolaja do it for his movie Band Together? Kolaja for the most part gathers the Kent County Community Band, sits them down and asks them questions. He started shooting and talking with the band members in 2008. He concluded in 2010. He followed the band's schedule. He went to the practices and the band's various events. He eventually began to go along with individuals to their places of work and homes.

The members are like a school of fish in that they all have to move together. They didn't all start out that way. One band member who stands out is Mark Mumford who is the de facto band leader. He says, through the band, he wants to bring back a sense of community. Fortunate for Mumford, it's called a "Community Band." Kolaja proceeds then to lay out the array of interviews from the members that make that case. Whether the sense of community was lacking prior is unclear, but the sense of community is certainly fortified as a result of the band.

How it's fortified and why it's fortified is what Kolaja's documentary illustrates. Yet, in the end, it's nothing more than a group of people sitting down and talking about themselves in relation to this band. It's not overly compelling. There is no story arc, meaning no narrative with a beginning or end. When I asked Kolaja why he decided to do this movie, he asked me in return, "How could a person not shoot that?"

He pointed to the fact that he saw the band marching and performing in a parade through Chestertown. The band was in fact briefly featured in Kolaja's previous documentary Charlie Obert's Barn, which played at the Chesapeake Film Festival four years ago.

Kolaja notes the band was not the Rockettes. It was a small variety of misfits, one of which was dressed in a crab outfit. Kolaja is an old news guy. He used to work at a TV news station in Erie, Pennsylvania, for many years, and, while others might have regarded the band as a passing fancy, Kolaja's instincts told him that there has to be a story there. A woman in a crab outfit! How could there not be a story?

He thought, if nothing else, the movie would be a laugh. The people would tell cute and funny stories. The woman in the crab outfit would probably tell the cutest and the funniest. After all, she was a woman in a crab outfit, so anything she said would be cute and funny by default, and that was that. Kolaja wasn't expecting anything more profound. It was only after spending time with these band members and getting to know these people did things take a different direction, a more heartfelt one.

Kolaja comes upon a story from one of the band members that is not only heartfelt but also quite tragic. It's in stark contrast to the lighthearted nature of the rest of the piece. Kolaja decides to keep it, keep it in because it adds depth to his documentary. I asked if it's in any way exploitative or emotionally manipulative, and Kolaja told me about the restraint he used when it came to how far he would delve into this tragic story and the respect he had for the woman not only telling but living through it. That restraint and respect representsed a resolve that some TV producers who are the equivalent of ambulance chasers might not have who would have wanted to exploit and emotionally manipulate.

I never knew Kuralt. I haven't read much of Dickens, but I do know Scorchy Tawes, and that's why I must invoke that comparison to WBOC's late great reporter again. Tawes had a fishing tournament named after him because Tawes was an avid fisherman and his stories were done in a way that was not unlike fishing itself. There was a patience to his work. There was also a comprehension that often it has to be about letting the subject come to you. Yes, you have to put out the bait, but most times it was about whatever the tide brought and being ready with the proper net or hook to reel it in. For Tawes, it was always about catch and release though. It was always about preservation, preservation of the stories that came down the stream, not just eating them.

For Kolaja, his movie feels like it's about the same. His fish, in this example, are the members of the Kent County Community Band, those musicians and marchers, one of which again does dress up like an aquatic animal. Kolaja's fish don't swim up river. They march through the streets of Chestertown, as well as other parts of Delmarva. He introduces those marchers in the brief opening. He catches them. We meet those who play the various instruments and even the mascot, a woman literally in a crab outfit, not quite a fish, but then we things get serious and tragic, Kolaja knows when to pull back. He releases them.

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated But Recommended for All Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr .and 9 mins.

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