Wanting a movie to end so you can run out and buy the soundtrack may not seem like huge endorsement, but in this case, it is. “Playing for Change: Peace Through Music,” a pan-global survey — and marriage — of varying styles of world music, is often so exhilarating, its neo-hippie utopianism doesn’t seem so implausible. Sure to be a festival hit, the docu (perhaps with a tidier title?) could make inroads into specialty markets and TV.
Starting on the pedestrian mall in Santa Monica, Calif., helmers Mark Johnson (who narrates) and Jonathan Walls made a recording of street singer Roger Ridley performing “Stand by Me” then took that tape all over the world. They added singers in New Orleans and Amsterdam, a guitarist in France, a Congolese drummer, some Zuni drummers in New Mexico, making musical collaborators out of people who’d never met. As movie openings go, the “Stand By Me” overture is the musical equivalent of the tracking shot that opens “Touch of Evil.”
And that’s just the beginning. Music “expresses what you are trying to say without words,” says one musician and, predictably, “Playing for Change” is most eloquent when the music does the talking.
Long-range partnerships are being formed: A singer sings in Buenos Aires, and his female backup trio, the Oneness Choir, is in India. Rajhesh Vaidhya, who plays the ancient veena, turns the sitar-like instrument into a melodious funk machine. Israeli singer Tula is followed by South African guitarist/singer Vusi Mahlasela, followed by Tibetan group the Exile Brothers. Significantly, a lot of the musicians are not seen playing in their own homelands — sometimes by choice, sometimes by the choices of others.
Among its virtues, “Playing for Change” is a great showcase for just what incredible, thoroughly accessible popular music is being made worldwide and, regardless of this movie’s efforts, is already highly homogeneous and cross-influenced. In turn, the doc is also an indictment of the American music industry and of format radio, which might look toward “Playing for Change” for a way to avoid irrelevance and obsolescence.
Production values are excellent, especially the sound.