DIR: Tadashi Nakamura | USA | 2012 | 55 mins | English
Saturday, Nov 10th 6:30pm | The Royal
What image do you get when you listen to ukulele music? Don Ho? Luaus? Kitschy American movies? Your ideas of ukulele music will be blown away after watching this documentary on Jake Shimabukuro. This documentary was directed by Tadashi Nakamura and profiles Shimabukuro’s rise from ukulele prodigy to internationally touring artist.
It should be stated that this film is a profile of a fairly clean cut artist. Unless they have decided to hide drug use or debauchery, Shimabukuro is a genuinely likeable guy. There are no skeletons in the closet or major conflicts. It’s simply a film that features terrific music and a look at a young man’s artistic development.
As with all music documentaries, the film looks at “where it all began.” And for Shimabukuro it began in Hawaii.
Shimabukuro started playing the ukulele at the age of four and became more absorbed with it as his family was falling apart. He quickly mastered the basics of the four stringed instrument and began looking at manipulating the sounds in more modern way. Straight out of high school, he and a few friends started a band and played locally. Soon they were high in demand and were performing all over Hawaii. It was hilarious to see old footage of the band playing in early 2000s—their look could be compared to a Polynesian-flavoured boy band.
The film follows Jake’s eventual departure from the band and his exploration as a solo artist. He pushes the boundaries of his music and regularly tries out music on a guitar or piano before finding a way to manipulate it out of a ukulele. If you check out some of his music online, you’ll be able to hear how he transforms Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”.
My only critique of this film is the shaky chronological narrative. It bounces from past to present in a confusing way. Perhaps this is a way to separate this film from more traditional music documentaries? Yet I felt a bit confused and wasn’t sure if Nakamura was trying to create themes that simply weren’t there. One theme that is particularly poignant is the connection between Shimabukuro and his mother and how his musicality came from his parents. It’s evident that his instrument is not only his ticket out of Hawaii but also his connection to his roots, culture, history and family. Another storyline that did not work particularly well was his visiting Japan and gaining perspective on the destruction of the tsunami. He visits the area, in part to help his Japanese manager (who is from Sendai) return to her homeland. Although touching, it felt like a disproportionately long part of this film. The film is only 55 minutes long, so even lingering on one point too long throws off the balance of the narrative.
What saves this film is the music. Shimabukuro is clearly a talented musician. His passion for his craft is evident and the music soars through the screen. I was so touched by his music, I immediately purchased some of his albums online. If you’re ready to take a leap of faith and discover the amazing range of possibilities that can come from a ukulele, please see “Life on Four Strings”!
Billie-Ann is a communications professional based in Vancouver. She is a past contributor to Schema. You can follow her on Twitter, @tweetinteddy.