Good vibrations and bad are key to Matt Boyd’s “A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument,” an ambitious urban docu-epic that focuses on guitarist Walter Baker, a maker, seeker and collector of sound. A work of dreamily seductive virtues that stretches the limits of nonfiction, pic could win over a limited aud through its energetic immersion in its subjects’ lives. Commercial prospects seem virtually nil, but festival play should be robust, and a cult following could well spring up.
Docu takes place largely in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Baker lives with his poet wife, Andrea, and their 12-year-old son, Sidney. Baker occasionally takes refuge in the subway, playing a large, specialized rubber band as if it were a Jew’s harp (the sound resembles bad brakes and a distemperate elephant). Baker gets better on the rubber band as the movie progresses, but as an instrument, and a metaphor, it’s much like life — an essentially uncontrollable generator of sloppy, errant vibrations.
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What Boyd chronicles as he follows Baker around is what happens in the wake of those vibrations, from the clashing chords of Baker’s numerous guitars and the conversations between people to the quivering of the molecules that constitute human existence.
Once the viewer is cued to the importance of sound in the film, it becomes impossible to divorce the image from the echoes. The brilliant audio mix by Brendan Anderegg is above all a great leveler; incidental music struggles against the sound of Andrea’s shoes slapping against a Brooklyn sidewalk, while the noise of street construction might get the same prominence as a conversation. Part of what makes the docu so poignant is the failure of people to hear what other people are saying — particularly Baker and his wife, but also Bakers’ parents when the Brooklynites visit Texas. This is also what qualifies the film as a documentary; the exchanges aren’t scripted, and a high existential drama rises out of the inadvertent, even unconscious breakdown in communications between people who ostensibly love each other, but whose egos can’t get out of each other’s way.
“A Rubberband Is an Unlikely Instrument” may be about people on the margins, but only superficially so. Greenpoint is perhaps the least gentrified of all gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods, but the Bakers’ concerns are decidedly bourgeois: They worry about retirement, about their son, about not owning anything, about how they’ll be able to support themselves just to live the way they live. Boyd includes recurring shots of the torn-up streets outside the family’s apartment and the “improvements” being made around their bohemian enclave. Andrea is long-suffering; Baker is a dreamer; around them is a world abuzz with sound, and they’re trying to find the right key.
Production values are surprisingly good, and the singing by Baker’s mother, Theresa, is the stuff country-music dreams are made of.