Piano Lesson for the Middle-Aged Amateurs Among Us in They Came to Play
A welcome twist on the now-ubiquitous kiddie competition doc, They Came to Play centers on the Van Cliburn Foundation's gathering of the world's best amateur pianists over the age of 35. "Amateur" is a word that makes most of the entrants bristle; it's also a semantic point of entry for director Alex Rotaru's gentle inquiry into the egalitarian nature of art and the compromises made for a life that involves regular meals. Rotaru chooses to focus on a handful of the 75 participants who are, yes, quirky, but also wildly talented and divergent in background. For some, like a French former Wimbledon competitor and two doctors, their musical talent is an extension of freakishly accomplished lives; for others, like the former coke addict and HIV-positive man mourning his lover, music is both escape and savior. The martial German physicist simply seeks perfection for perfection's sake. Rotaru has to regroup when several of his primary subjects are eliminated in the first round, but there is continuity in his focus on the emotions and eccentricities that infuse each player's performance with something beyond technique. The bittersweet refrain is that even such brilliant pianists could only make a hobby—not a life—of their gifts.
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