Exhilarating docu “Sonic Mirror” follows virtuoso percussionist Billy Cobham as he both performs with professional ensembles and teaches specialized groups around the world. While performance segments are exciting, it’s the scenes exploring how autistic adults at a Swiss clinic relate to music and rhythm that are the pic’s most fascinating element. The subject may not sound like a grabber, but as impeccably assembled by Mika Kaurismaki, this rousing feature could catch on with arthouse auds theatrically, with strong prospects for longer-term artscaster and educational exposure.
Personable sixtysomething Cobham briefly visits his native Brooklyn and his musically accomplished family, but “Mirror” isn’t really interested in outlining his career (including stints with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin) or his esteem as arguably the world’s greatest jazz fusion drummer. Instead, the focus is on his ideas about rhythm as an essential, intuitive means of human communication.
His intricate playing is glimpsed in several settings, notably playing a fully orchestrated composition with the Espoo Big Band at a Finnish jazz fest. In Brazil (where Kaurismaki also shot the docu “Sounds of Brasil”), Cobham teaches three precocious favela youths who are training to be part of the large samba ensemble Male Debale, and explains both his personal roots and the historical ones of Afro-Latino music.
There are also side trips to visit an old-fashioned drum artisan and someone who converts used tires into whimsically painted, thundering rhythmic tools.
Most absorbing, however, are sequences with residents at a facility for autistics in Konolfingen, Switzerland. We see the staff using percussive instruments and vibration in therapy with otherwise noncommunicative, withdrawn patients.
When Cobham and other musicians come to visit, their music coaxes some delighted, almost outgoing behavior from the patients. Slam-dunk finale cuts between a spectacular full-costume Male Debale concert and the Konolfingen subjects playing with Cobham & Co.’s instruments, underlining the universality of music’s ability to move both body and emotions.
Packaging is on the top end of the documentary scale, with dynamic contributions from lenser Jacques Cheuiche, sound designer Uwe Dresch and editors Oli Weiss and Dresch.