Classical And Indie Rock Collide On The Big Screen in 'Downtown Express'

Jun 8, 2011

The story of the new film Downtown Express, which had its Manhattan premiere last night, is easily summarized: Sasha, a young Russian violinist, comes to New York with his culturally disoriented cellist father and a quirky violinist cousin.

Pressured by both his father and his Juilliard School accompanist/mentor to climb the classical career ladder, Sasha encounters Ramona, a quirky singer-songwriter as lost as he is, played by downtown darling Nellie McKay. He promptly falls in love with both the indie-rock club scene and Ramona, and begins to question his artistic and maybe even ethnic identities.

Sasha is played by Philippe Quint, an actual concert violinist who studied acting for 3 years. And like his on-screen character, Quint emigrated from Russia to study at Juilliard, where his teachers included such legends as Dorothy DeLay and Felix Galimir. Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker David Grubin has directed his first feature, and Michael Hausman (Brokeback Mountain, Gangs of New York and Amadeus) produced.

Though Quint might popularly be best known as one in a string of absent-minded classical musicians who have lost their instruments in cabs, he has also been nominated for two Grammys (a stellar recording of Willliam Schuman's violin concerto and an engaging traversal of Korngold's violin concerto, both for Naxos). This summer he'll play Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Brahms Double Concerto with cellist Alisa Weilerstein in Mexico City.

My colleague Tom Huizenga and I both watched this film last night, and here we are today to exchange a few thoughts.

Anastasia Tsioulcas: So, Tom, what did you think of the movie? I have to admit that I was hamstrung by what I felt were the film's weaknesses, especially in term of its script and some of the acting.

Tom Huizenga: Did you really think all the acting suffered? I actually enjoyed watching Philippe Quint. First off, it's not often you get to see a movie about a classical violinist, and if you do, the shots are almost always fudged such that you don't see their fingers, or see much bowing because it's an actor simulating the playing of a violin. But here the character really is a violinist — and boy, can he play. I really loved hearing him play snippets of the gorgeous Cavatina by Joseph Joachim Raff. That's a new piece to me.

AT: I agree there. Quint is an amazing player in terms of his technique, but it was especially refreshing to see someone on screen who was actually performing, and quite beautifully at that. I also thought that it was terrific to see actual street musicians at work — some of whom are very accomplished, and more than a couple of whom I've seen around town.

I also thought that the filmmakers did a fine job of creating little glimpses into the hustle so common to nearly all musicians struggling to get heard — whether it's the virtuosic cellist coaching a bunch of preschool-aged Suzuki violin players or seeing Ramona's apartment (in Red Hook, maybe?), very boho and wildly creative in its décor, but at the same time to have the audience see the character dumpster-diving for her dinner.

TH: Yes, that brings us to Nellie McKay. Love her. Love her music. She actually visited the NPR studios a couple years back to participate in one of our Project Song schemes and her energy was so wonderfully quirky and alive, you could practically see her brain churning out cool ideas. But in this film, her burner was turned down disappointingly low, I thought. I know she's supposed to be a somewhat "tortured artist," but I'd still have liked a little more energy. That said, her performances in the movie are great.

You mentioned the script earlier. Is this a story that's believable for you?

AT: I think that it wasn't so much a question of the main plot points being unbelievable; after all, there are plenty of parents in any field of endeavor who pressure their kids into a career path and life that isn't the right fit, not taking their kids' wants and needs into account. I also really liked the idea of Sasha using his emigration to carve out a new identity. At the same time, I feel as if some of the detail, like elements of the dialogue and the secondary storyline of a budding romance between Sasha's dad and Marie, the Juilliard pianist, were lacking some of the same care.

I agree that Nellie McKay was underutilized for sure. I expected her to be a real spark in this film, and that just didn't happen for me.

Back to the music for a minute, as that is our wheelhouse. I was disappointed in how it was applied. I felt that one of the core messages was that classical music is so deeply and irrefutably unhip that of course Sasha rejects it. (In that realm, it's worth noting that Sasha sticks to 19th century showpieces, which just underscores its essential "deadness" to the general population.) But when he melds classical and indie-rock in playing alongside Ramona, the result is more than a little cheesy. It's essentially David Garrett's kind of fusion, and I'm personally just not a fan of that kind of crossover.

TH: I take your point. The story line and some of the dialogue are perhaps a little too predictable. Frankly, though, I saw it as the story of a person, in this case a musician, coming to terms with trying to follow his dreams and search for a musical and personal identity in a new country. Not surprisingly, he rebels against his headstrong father in the process.

But I think you can look at the classical music issue in an alternate way. As Sasha begins to reject the repertoire in the context of ramping up for his Juilliard-sanctioned recital debut, he actually embraces it in a new way with Ramona, practicing bits of it with her accompanying at her electric keyboard. For a moment or two near the end of the film, I thought perhaps he would reject his Juilliard accompanist in favor of his newfound friend Ramona. But — spoiler alert — that didn't happen. All in all, it was an often charming if slightly imperfect little movie set against an intriguing collision of classical and indie rock.

AT: The film, as we mentioned, is brand new — no distributor yet. It could show up at a few festivals. In the meantime, at least you can catch a feel for it and see some fiery fiddling from Quint in the clip at the top of this page.

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