Oscar-nominated short film “A Concerto Is a Conversation” is the story of love between a grandfather and his grandson woven together through music. It’s also a narrative about race in America.
Composer Kris Bowers, the virtuoso behind “Green Book” and “When They See Us,” wears multiple hats for the film, as co-director (with friend Ben Proudfoot), producer, composer and star. He appears alongside his 91-year-old grandfather Horace Bowers Sr.
The 13-minute film is the result of a short piece Proudfoot had been working on for L.A. Philharmonic, which had commissioned him for a project addressing the intersection between Los Angeles and music. He reached out to Bowers after learning the composer was set to appear at Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles for a violin concerto with the American Youth Symphony. “He asked if he could follow me writing that piece,” Bowers remembers.
The day the two got together to trade ideas for the project, Bowers showed up in a suit. Asked about his attire, Bowers explained that he had just come from a ceremony for his grandfather, who owns a dry-cleaning shop on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. The elder Bowers had had the business area around the shop named in his honor.
Proudfoot’s film began to take a different turn as he heard Bowers share his grandfather’s history: He had come from the Florida panhandle town of Bascom, and after experiencing the Jim Crow South, had moved cross country.
The documentary starts with Bowers prepping for the concerto before cutting to Bowers Sr. asking his grandson, “What’s a concerto?” and later, “Did you ever picture yourself doing what you’re doing now?” The conversation then segues into Bowers Sr. recalling his journey.
Cinematographers David Bolen and Brandon Somerhalder had 700 pounds of camera gear between them to capture the exchange, but Proudfoot explains that the setup was an intimate one. “We are tight in on them,” he says. “Both Kris and his grandfather were inches of minimal focal distance from these lenses.” It was a choice Proudfoot says he has honed over 45 projects, for which he often chooses tight shots to show the nuances in his subjects’ faces. “It’s this beautiful result of being able to have this quiet and intimate thing so you can analyze every nook and cranny. You can analyze every word through their storytelling.”
It was up to editor Lukas Dong to thread the multiple storylines together — Bowers’ as he’s writing his concerto, the conversation about his grandfather’s history and the theme of race. Proudfoot says, “We went through many cuts of this film.”
One sequence shows Bowers Sr.’s foot on the pedal of a steamer at the laundry and cuts to Bowers’ foot on the pedal of a Steinway piano. “There’s so much tying them together through time and physicality, so it’s one foot pressing both pedals,” explains Proudfoot. (Serendipitously, Bowers recorded the piece on the piano that John Williams used to compose the theme to “Jurassic Park.”)
One piece that was particularly meaningful to Bowers was a variation on the hymn “How Great Thou Art,” which Bowers Sr. sings at the end. “That appears twice,” says the composer. “It’s a thankful moment that reminds me of [being in] church.”
While Bowers had to write the score based on his concerto and craft the music to fit the story of his life, he says that talking with the elder Bowers and discussing his history made him feel freer when considering aspects of his own work.
“It was easiest in the moments where I was focused on my grandfather,” notes Bowers, “because I could see him as a hero.”