Sundance 2019: The superpowers of music and silence, as explored in exquisite documentary Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements

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In the documentary film Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements which premiered at this year’s Sundance, viewers see Jonas, in his early teens, experiencing something familiar to every musician –amateur or professional, student or virtuoso. At times, Jonas become frustrated at the mistakes and imperfections in his playing, whether he is practicing alone or during his lessons with his piano teacher, Colleen Connolly. At one point, he removes temporarily the cochlear implants from his ear.

Many musicians are quite surprised when they listen to recordings of their own performances that the errors they felt so strongly about – or, more commonly, embarrassed by – while they were playing turn out to be much less noticeable than what they anticipated. The mistakes a musician makes likely are less distracting to an audience than what might be assumed. Musicians learn to confront the paradox, as they spend their practice time to perfect every note and phrase where they stop and start over endlessly but that in the setting of a live performance, if a mistake is made, the hope is that it is not so embarrassing or obvious for anyone to notice.

For Jonas, as he challenged himself to learn to play the opening movement of one of Beethoven’s most famous works, the Moonlight Sonata, he realizes that spending too much energy on the mistakes not only goes unnoticed but also distracts him from focusing on the beauty of the Beethoven masterpiece that inspired him to learn how to play it.

A still from Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements by Irene Taylor Brodsky, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Irene Taylor Brodsky.

Irene Taylor Brodsky captures all of this beautifully in her latest film that weaves the stories of her son, Jonas; her father, Paul Taylor, and Beethoven, at the time the composer went deaf. The film evokes so many dimensions. It is a wise statement of musical appreciation in its purest state. It is a story of unconditional intergenerational family love rendered with candor that is as respectful and dignified as it is transparent. It is a story of learning to communicate through life’s most challenging transitions. And, it enlightens viewers to reconsider their perceptions of what deafness means.

In one scene Sally Taylor, who is Brodsky’s mother and Jonas’ grandmother, awaits a genetic counselor to find out the cause of her deafness. Sally’s husband, Paul, was born with deafness but hers came later. Jonas could hear when he was born but his hearing loss was first observed when he was 18 months old. It deteriorated steadily until he lost all of his hearing capacity by the age of four.

She is told that there was a variant – a mutation – in a specific gene sequence, a medical condition. The genetic counselor explained that a mistake occurred in the gene – misspelling or typo, as she described it. The grandmother appears to be taken aback slightly at the suggestion of a ‘typo.’ She says, “It is what it is.” She and her husband received cochlear implants in their mid-60s right before Jonas was born, and their story was part of Brodsky’s 2007 documentary Hear and Now, which premiered at Sundance and won the Audience Award.

Brodsky inverts the notion of a ‘typo,’ vividly making the case that instead it becomes a superpower. When the grandfather tires of the noise (the Brodsky homestead bustles constantly with Jonas, a natural performer, and his two younger brothers who have not experienced any hearing loss), he simply removes his implants. Brodsky, who narrates the film at key points, says it is a superpower her son soon will discover. At the talkback after a Salt Lake City screening, Jonas said that he removes his implants on mornings before he starts his school day. In the film, Connolly also recognizes Jonas’ abilities, explaining that his deafness has allowed him to hear his own voice in the music that deepens his appreciation of what Beethoven sought to convey in his music.

The piano lesson scenes with Connolly and Jonas bring plenty of laughs but they also outline the path toward some key themes. When her son decided to take up the piano along with the challenge of learning to play this particular Beethoven masterpiece, Brodsky delved into biographies about the composer and his letters as background research for the film. Her husband (Matt) is a neurologist who plays guitar and her father-in-law (John Brodsky) is a physician who also plays piano and builds harpsichords. Jonas pursues the challenge of learning such an advanced level piece, even if the difficulty of the music occasionally exasperated him. At the talkback, he mentioned that he is working on pieces by Bach and Mozart. In the film, relying on a six-point scale, Jonas says that his playing is a “four-plus.” At the talkback, he mentioned it was “a solid three,” but he added that it could be a one or two or a six, at various times.

Beethoven is present nearly continuously in the film but in the most nuanced and unobtrusive ways. There is, of course, the music, whether in the lessons or a recital, or in background scoring or in an edited string of YouTube clips. There is some in Brodsky’s elegantly curated narration or in the words of Connolly. One of Beethoven’s finest representations is the gorgeous animation, thanks to the illustrations of Jordan Domont and the animation directing efforts of Brian Kinkley.

An impressive achievement is in how Brodsky integrates the story of her father, whose work as an engineer pioneered the development of telecommunications devices for the deaf (TTYs), an achievement proudly noted by Jonas in the film. The film depicts just how close Paul considers the bond with his eldest grandson.

Now, in his late seventies, Paul recognizes changes in his own memory and mental capacities. Simple things like remembering a passcode become difficult. He reluctantly accepts but understands why he has to give up driving, something that Brodsky says her father always has especially enjoyed since he learned to drive at the age of 14. She mentions that her passion as a visual artist and documentarian came from her parents’ activities as amateur filmmakers and photographers. Indeed, everyone seems naturally at ease in front of a camera.

Brodsky shapes the documentary’s story in three movements that do resemble the form of the classic sonata that was so common in the late Classical period at the turn of the century between the 1700s and 1800s. The narrative themes of her son and father are established and then revisited in each movement of the film with variations, modulations and new material introduced throughout the film. In the final movement, she sets the cinematic coda synthesizing the key themes, which unites all three stories: Jonas, Paul and Beethoven. Brodsky instinctively composes this outstanding personal film with her unique form and structure to achieve a beauty of sincere expression in the most emotionally touching way.

An HBO film, it also received a Utah Film Center fiscal sponsorship, was produced by Tahria Sheather and is a Vermilion Films production.

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