Filmmaking #1 - Bolero

The story is told that in the 1960's when Bill Cosell, of WGBH in Boston, was asked to direct broadcasts of Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, his first big problem was to find camera operators who knew something about music. Almost none of the ones at hand could identify the instruments. When Bill called for a shot of the oboe, the response was just as likely to be a view of the clarinet, and he would yell, “Not that black instrument, the other black instrument!” or, “The bald headed guy with glasses.” So Bill made the rounds of television studios, and, tiptoeing up behind the cameramen, who were setting up for a soap opera or a news broadcast, he whispered, “Do you like jazz?” or, “Ever play an instrument in high school?” When he got even a partially positive response, he hired the cameraman away to join his team.

The style of broadcasting orchestral concerts in the 1960's consisted of placing a single camera in the center of the concert hall, focusing it on a wide shot of the orchestra and leaving it alone. Set up in the best seat in the house, the camera operator had very little to do, since the picture never changed. He could have brought along something to read. 

Lacking any kind of visual variety, this technique stifled all sense of musical flow, and the audiences at home were soon changing the channel. After many conferences and meetings, the broadcasters proudly announced their remedy. They would overlay the orchestra with shots of nature - flowers, tidal beaches, and small families of deer grazing in slow motion. They tried to match this beautiful art work with the changing moods of the music, but the results were laughable. One reviewer wrote that the concerts became advertisements for women's underwear.

But though the broadcasters failed, they were made to realize the problem: in television and film, the battle between seeing and hearing is always won by the eye. The most powerful music of the great composers recedes into the background when played behind visual images. Cosell and his crew recognized this. Their first improvement was to shake loose from the static unmoving cameras and follow the thematic progress of the music, showing one prominent instrument and group after another. But audiences still watched more than they listened. 

How, then, could we strengthen a viewer’s attention to the music? One answer occurred to me - enlist the musicians themselves.

While I was Associate Conductor of the Denver Symphony, I noticed how the local sports fans loved their heroes on the Broncos football team. They would recognize them on the street during the week, and grab a handshake: “Hiya – you were great last Sunday – let’s go get ’em.” The football players seemed to like these encounters as much as the fans. Could concertgoers develop a friendly feeling for individual orchestra musicians, until now faceless in a mass of black suits and skirts? Could one learn to root for the second oboe player or a guy in the middle of the violin section?

About this time, in 1972, I had received my promised grant to make a documentary about the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta performing Ravel's “Bolero.” In addition to shooting the performance, my co-producer Bill Fertik and I were given permission to film the players getting ready backstage, and rehearsing with Mehta. The budget, barely totaling $75,000, was shared by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the latter held back their final OK in Washington right up to the day of the shoot, when our cameras were set up and the orchestra was already arriving at the hall. 

How could I get the players to participate? Would they be willing to talk on camera? I was surprised - four or five said yes right away, including the all-important flutist who is the first to play Ravel's repeated melody. To make the musicians as comfortable as possible, we avoided interviews at first, and stayed back to let them get used to our cameras and lights. We filmed them in groups - unpacking, assembling their instruments, and warming up. Then, we gradually moved in for close-ups, connecting faces with fingers as they practiced their phrases from “Bolero.” We felt like a team from the National Geographic, getting closer and closer to the animals in their natural habitat. 

We were pleased to discover that our rare creatures relaxed quickly. They were performers, after all. They talked easily to the camera about their instruments, about their roles in “Bolero,” and about playing for Zubin Mehta. Each of them was charming and informative in a distinctive way. I suppose they were glad that someone had finally singled them out. The flutist described the pressure she felt at the beginning, playing the solo melody with only a quiet, rhythmic snare drum to accompany her. A bass player assured us with a wink that coming to a rehearsal helped him forget about arguing with his wife. The bassoonist admitted that his solo was in such a high register that it always made him anxious. Then he played it perfectly for the camera and said winningly, “See how easy it is when I'm all by myself?” 

Zubin Mehta had been thrilling Los Angeles audiences since he arrived as Music Director in 1962 at the age of twenty-six. Now, a decade or so later, his musicianship and exciting intensity clearly continued to captivate the orchestra, and he projected a feeling of enthusiastic collegiality with them - a very satisfactory partnership. This extended into the promotional campaign for the orchestra. Huge photographs of the handsome new Music Director, in his perfectly fitting Nehru jacket, lined the walls of the lobby, and small likenesses were distributed everywhere. I wondered if Scherchen had ever achieved this kind of popularity, or even wanted it. Respect for his success in making musicians play well was his reward.

On camera, Mehta described his job in “Bolero:” “The conductor must keep the tempo absolutely steady, so that the gradual buildup can have the greatest effect. We play this piece hundreds of times,” he added. “After this project is over, I never want to see Bolero again!” This kind of easy joking from a major maestro was undoubtedly new for concertgoers. 

During the rehearsal, and in the performance, which we photographed without an audience, we started with the solo passages of the musicians we had met, and built up the orchestra to larger and larger groups, finishing with the entire orchestra at the end. We waited for the climax to show Mehta, dramatically back-lit, filmed by a camera directly in front of him. He embodied the music in every gesture and facial expression.

This new technique of using the musicians to help bring the audience closer to performances has since been adopted by most directors. But we still realize that filmed performances can never substitute for live concerts - or sound recordings - the visual element will always be distracting. No director will ever solve this problem, especially in an era that demands quick cuts from short takes, and ever-smaller screens on handheld devices. And “Bolero” was a one-shot. Most music consists of a rich and complicated texture, full of harmony and color that cannot be embodied in a single instrument, the way a repeated theme stands apart from the accompaniment throughout "Bolero." Focusing the camera on whoever is playing a leading melody, is like the student conductor who is hearing only one line in an interwoven musical fabric. 

In subsequent films I tried to further strengthen the role of musicians as spokespersons for the music. I did not ask them to analyze or explain, but to step back from their professional activity and allow us to get to know them as individual personalities. I learned how to help them become more and more important in drawing the listener into the music. 

The film of “Bolero” won an Academy Award in 1973. I wish Scherchen had been there to receive it with me. He had died in Florence in 1966.