(2007) dir. Ben Niles
A documentary about the making of a piano. Literally. But me, like perhaps not a whole lot of others, found this intriguing enough to queue up in my Netflix queue back three years ago when it had its brief theatrical run in San Francisco and maintained it there until it finally became availble on DVD. That, among other things, is what sets me apart from other people writing about movies.
Actually, the film is quite well-produced, following actually the year-long production of a concert grand piano at Steinway and Sons in New York. The L1037 is the actual number ID of the particular piano being followed throughout the process, and while that doesn’t make for the catchiest name in a documentary, it’s still apt. According to the many people interviewed, from musicians to craftspeople, each piano is unique, has its own character and personality, especially those made by Steinway.
At Steinway, the pianos are all made and tuned, entirely by hand. Craftspeople, with amazing speciality work from the earliest stages through the most intricate touches, working by feel and by ear, not by machine. In fact, the most powerful and moving aspect of the film is the work of the craftspeople, the pride they take in their work, their longevity with the company. These are people from all over the world, from Eastern Europe, the Phillipines, and just right down the street in Queens where the factory has been. The process of building a piano has not significantly changed in 100 years.
But it is a dying thing. Once pianos were a more common requirement for a household and many piano companies existed to help provide them. Now, not many are left, and according to the film, Steinway & Sons is the last in which the entire process is done by handcraftsmanship. It’s truly fascinating to look into this factory in which the people work with such dilligent and artful skill, perhaps an image of the world closer to the pre-industrial revolution, in which skills were built over years, working with one’s own hands. And the people all seem very vested and proud of their work.
There are interviews with workers at each phase of the process, but also with pianists (inlucding Hélène Grimaud, Harry Connick, Jr., Hank Jones, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, among others) who use Steinway pianos in their performances, showing them selecting each instrument with finicky deliberation. While the film could come off as some very praiseful ode to the Steinway company, not just for their wonderful pianos, but for their traditional and human approach to production, the film tries to focus on the process and not as much on the “praise”, but it’s not meant to be controvertial, rather insightful.
I found myself thinking about how I maybe should sign up for piano lessons. The piano has long been my favorite instrument, particularly in jazz, but I really had no idea the complexity of the instrument. The artisans are all very specified in their step in the year-long process, and yet, the details and the infintessimal complexity of the piano and why it works the way it does is also quite illuminating. Fascinating.
Actually, the film’s greatest charm for me was seeing the workers at their processes, people who work as tuners or wood-workers, or all kinds of specialized roles in shaping the pianos, selecting the most prime timber, perfecting the well-noted imperfectability that is creating the best pianos, and seeing and hearing their great pride and investment in their work. If only all jobs could be so rewarding. If only this wasn’t a glimpse at a dying breed. But it is indeed a very interesting film if you can delve into it, something worth hunting for and digging up.