Making The Grade (Ireland / G / 86 mins)
Directed by Ken Wardrop.
THE PLOT: This observational documentary takes a whimsical look at the piano lesson. As a number of students, both young and old, prepare for their graded piano exams, their teachers show them the ropes… or rather the keys. A strong and respectful bond forms between the students and teachers, as they guide them into mastering the intricacies of the piano and its many musical pleasures… THE VERDICT: Ken Wardrop has rightfully developed a reputation as one of Ireland’s foremost documentarians. His And Hers, in particular, was a delightful look at how ordinary people fell in love. His new film ‘Making The Grade’ follows very much in his intimate style of filmmaking, where he gains the trust of his subjects to the point where the camera’s presence is felt less and his presence is felt more. The result is an engaging documentary laced with Irish humour and down-to-earth doggedness at trying to master the mysteries of the piano.
An engagingly flamboyant character in person, Wardrop admits to not having learnt the piano himself – and he’s not going to start anytime soon either. That’s not a bad thing for the film though, allowing him to show his own interest in the piano through the voices of others. Having visited the Royal Irish Academy Of Music, he discovered the eight grading levels used for intending piano students in their exams. The film is structured in this way, starting with very basic players and moving right up to the next concert pianists.
Each chapter tries to show different perspectives, from the very young to the very old. In many respects, this works well. The banter between piano teachers and their students, whether playful, humourous or downright blunt (‘that was terrible’) is a constant source of amusement. It’s episodic by nature, meaning that there’s a revolving door of different people every few minutes. This loose narrative structure reveals some minor flaws.
Some subjects (including some real characters) demand more attention, but the camera leaves them too soon. There’s also no follow-up either to see how they got in their exams. More focused attention on a smaller number of people over a longer period of time wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, there are so many great stories here (precocious children, encouraging nuns, constant triers) that it would be churlish to pick at these flaws. As the opening quote from Beethoven suggests, one must play the piano with passion. There’s plenty of passion in this film, which hits the right notes. RATING: 3. 5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor