A delightful, well-crafted docu, “They Came to Play” focuses on contestants in the Van Cliburn Intl. Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. Following the recent “Spellbound” template for films covering competitive events, Alex Rotaru’s docu visits entrants in their homes, samples their performances and records their reactions before and after onstage appearances. All over 35, the pianists are an intriguingly varied bunch, and the event itself provides a rousing reaffirmation of a type of music now in danger of extinction. Unspooling simultaneously with another Van Cliburn docu, “A Surprise in Texas,” pic is enjoying a tour of theaters, museums and college campuses.
Rotaru’s emphasis is less on winners and losers than on the joy the players derive from retoning their musical muscles. Some had not tickled the ivories in years, while others had been playing in private or at amateur venues. Some had seriously pursued a concert pianist dream, only to opt for another profession, while others are autodidacts with little or no training. All are driven by a passion for the 88s and a burning desire to reintegrate music into their daily routines.
If few of the gifted amateurs here display as much whimsical charm as Esfir Ross, whose accomplished if uneven sets are accompanied by the eye-rolling, lip-pursing head movements of a lovestruck guppy, each proves engaging in his or her own way. There’s the white-haired French tennis pro who was once matched against Billie Jean King; the genial Bach arranger/composer living with AIDS; the German physicist who links music with mathematical precision; and the lawyer whose Hodgkins disease left him deaf in one ear, and whose constant practicing drives his family to far-flung corners of the house. Rather than milking their stories for pathos or inspiration, Rotaru lets his subjects present themselves in all their disarming complexity.
In nervous anticipation of uncustomary public exposure, the performers ground themselves with special rituals and superstitions. Eating bananas 20 minutes before performing fits the bill for many, while others anxiously warm their hands to keep fingers supple. One contestant, a surgeon, impulsively changes his program at the last minute in all three stages of the competition.
Pic is faultlessly edited, as Rotaru and cutter Harrison Engle never allow narrative threads or musical samplings to go overlong or get shortchanged.