Cast: Henry Steinway, Franz Mohr, Dennis Schweit, Wally Boot, Bob Bernhardt, Helene Grimaud, Ron Coners, Harry Connick Jr., Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Dan Duddy, Gino Romano, Hank Jones, Lang Lang, Marcus Roberts, Prenta Ljucovic, Victor Apuango, Bill Charlap, Eddy Salvodon, Lou Bagonja, Ante Glavan, Warren Albrecht, Larry Viguerie, Betsy Hirsch, Anous Vertus, Mike Massetti, Bruce Campbell
Director: Ben Niles
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:20m:35s
"Every piano has its own personality." - Wally Boot
Here's a doc about how Steinway pianos are made, and how each instrument carries a unique feel and its own set of exacting build standards.
Movie Grade: B-
DVD Grade: B-
In what could almost be an 81-minute commercial for Steinway & Sons pianos, director Ben Niles follows the one year creation of a concert grand piano, from raw Alaskan wood to the finished product.
But unlike those clinical and mechanical How It's Made shows on the Science Channel, Niles adopts a slightly more artistic air, as both Steinway craftsmen and celebrated pianists take time to tell us how each instrument carries its own personality and attitude, even though each piano is made with the same level of precise and delicate design qualities.
At each point along the build, Niles introduces viewers to the craftsmen in Queens, NY who make it all happen, each one involved in a process that involves exacting measurements and skilled handiwork so that the next person in the chain can do their thing. They all seem to share a love of what they do (though if cameras were on me at my day job I'd say the same thing), and they each seem to leave a part of themselves buried somewhere inside the finished product. The intricate hand-crafted work is impressive, and if nothing else, the process of how the wood is bent and shaped was completely fascinating.
Niles alternates between the creation process with input from an assortment of pianists, including Helene Grimaud, Harry Connick Jr. and Hank Jones. This is where the talk delves into the arty vagaries of the "feel" and play of each piano, and how they're all slightly different. Some apparently "push back" more than other, while some carry subtle differences that only come out dependent on the personally playing style of each individual pianist.
Watching Pierre-Laurent Aimard bound from Steinway to Steinway, looking for just the right one for a Carnegie Hall performance, is perhaps the moment where all of this "feel" talk comes to fruition, because we can see on his face that he is hearing and feeling things that most of us mere mortals cannot.
There's no formal narration in Note By Note, so aside from some occasional subtitles, the entire film is presented in the words and actions of the builders and players. Niles steps outside of this momentarily when he introduces us to a family looking to buy a piano for their teenaged son. What follows is a genuinely sweet scene when the piano is delivered to their home, and we learn how this instrument (and the boy's natural talents) are providing a very deep connection across familial generations. If any of those Steinway craftsmen ever needed to see proof exactly what it is they're building, this would be it.
While it was an interesting process to see how a Steinway grand piano is built, and to hear all the input from players like Grimaud and Connick Jr., Note By Note lacks a wider central theme that could give it bite. Clearly this is a dying art, and it's a marvel to see it all come together. There's just not enough of a main story to perhaps make this a bit more accessible to anyone but diehard documentary fans.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer isn't going to be a showcase disc, but it carries nice colors and at time some wonderful closeup detail of the craftsmanship involved in the build process. Overall there's a measurable inconsistency to the quality—ranging from soft to sharp—though the transfer never took me out of the moment. This one walks like a doc, looks like a doc. No major specs or debris issues to be found.
Audio options are available in 5.1 Dolby Surround and 2.0 stereo, and both are on pretty equal footing. There's a noticeable issue with volume levels that is either annoyingly intentional or unfortunately accidental, resulting in a number of very quiet passages (that require a boost of the volume) that lead into loud scenes that will have you suddenly reaching to drop it down. Not much in the way of rear channel cues, but the 5.1 does deliver the occasional professional piano playing with a much cleaner, natural tone.
This "deluxe edition" comes with over 80 minutes of extras, nearly the length of the feature itself, with the supplements split into three sections: Portraits, Performances and Scenes. Portraits carries nine separate segments, highlighting pianists and key players featured in the film, including Helene Grimaud, Harry Connick Jr. and Henry Steinway. Here there's more in-depth discussion of their passion, as well (in eight of the nine) some additional piano playing. Performances has separate footage of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Bill Charlap, Hank Jones and Marcus Roberts delivering a number on their Steinways, while Scenes is a collection of five extended and/or deleted scenes focusing on the assembly and craftsmanship involved in the creation of a piano.
Posted by: Rich Rosell - December 16, 2009, 7:38 am - DVD Review
Keywords: documentary, steinway & sons, grand piano, harry connick jr., helene grimaud