by Paul Hansen 15 April, 2021
A Concerto Is a Conversation is an eloquent documentary, which covers a lot of fascinating territory in its well-paced 13 minutes. Nominated this year for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short, the film focuses on Kris Bowers, a talented composer and pianist, and his 91-year-old grandfather, Horace Bowers, Sr.
Kris was commissioned to write a violin concerto by The American Youth Symphony to be premiered in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In the beginning of the film, his grandfather asks him to explain what a concerto is. Kris responds that a concerto is basically a conversation between a soloist and an orchestra.
In addition to following the progress of the concerto, the film also evolves into a description of Horace’s escape from systemic Jim Crow era racism in Florida as a teenager and his arrival in Los Angeles where he became a successful businessman. (In fairness, the film also describes racism that Horace encountered in Los Angeles of a somewhat different sort and his savvy overcoming of that discrimination). The film details the calm perseverance of both men that led to triumph in both of their careers.
In addition to being a subject of the documentary, Kris also co-directed A Concerto is a Conversation with Ben Proudfoot. Among his credits, Kris has written the score for the 2018 film Green Book and the mini-series When They See Us. He won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2011, and in 2017 he received a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Music Direction for The Snowy Day.
Co-director Ben Proudfoot has directed a number of shorts and documentaries including Rust, Ladybug and That’s My Jazz.
ScreenPicks posed some questions to Kris Bowers and Ben Proudfoot about A Concerto Is a Conversation.
ScreenPicks: How did your collaboration begin to make A Concerto Is a Conversation and what themes were you particularly interested in exploring?
Kris Bowers: Ben originally reached out to me because the LA Phil had commissioned him to make a short doc looking at the intersection of LA and music. He saw that I had a violin concerto with the American Youth Symphony coming up at The Walt Disney Concert Hall and thought it might be interesting to follow my process working on that. It just so happened that the day we met to discuss this, I was coming from an event celebrating my grandfather where they named the block he owns in South LA (where his cleaners is), the "Bowers Retail Square." In telling Ben about this event, I also went into my grandfather's story: how he grew up in a farm in the South, hitchhiked across the country, ended up in LA with barely any money, and a couple of years later owned the cleaners. Instantly, Ben thought it would be incredible if we could combine these stories into one film, and thinking about making a film that paid tribute to my grandfather and his story felt like an opportunity I couldn't turn down.
ScreenPicks: Kris - At what age did you know you wanted to be a composer? Are there any composers whom you particularly admire and have they influenced your work?
Bowers: I believe I wrote my first piece of music at 8 or 9 years old. Once my parents put me in jazz lessons and I discovered how to improvise and express myself, composition came soon after. Around 11 or 12, I became fascinated with film music, and told my parents I wanted to somehow find a way into film scoring as my career. The composers that I fell in love with include: John Williams, Quincy Jones, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard, James Newton Howard, John Powell, Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer and others.
ScreenPicks: Ben - As a film director, are there certain types of projects that particularly interest you?
Ben Proudfoot: I love true stories, and I love people who have calcified points of view having been through adversity and loss. I think as human beings we are constantly grappling with the chaos and loss that comes with life, and I like to put my time into helping to tell stories that help us find order in the chaos and meaning and perseverance in loss.
ScreenPicks: Was there anything particularly challenging or memorable that happened during the course of filming A Concerto Is a Conversation?
Proudfoot: For me, I very vividly remember shooting with Horace and Kris in the dry cleaning plant, the steam and steel and rows on rows of garments. Very visually stimulating and magical in an uncanny way. I remember trying to get Mr. Bowers to "play the ironing board like a piano" and he was not having it! "They're going to think I don't know how to press a shirt!" That memory always makes me laugh.
ScreenPicks: What advice would you have to give to filmmakers who are contemplating making a documentary?
Proudfoot: Tell a story because you feel that it ought to be told, and for no other reason. Do it to lift up a story, not lift up yourself. One of the beautiful things about documentary filmmaking is that high craft is not required to tell a compelling story. You can shoot an amazing piece of documentary on your phone if it's vivid and personal and real enough. I would just say enter it with your heart — and I would consider yourself more as a story's greatest artist-advocate rather than seeing yourself as a director-visionary who is expressing yourself through someone else's story.
ScreenPicks: Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about A Concerto Is a Conversation?
Bowers: Mainly that this film is a love letter to my grandfather and to that generation. Thinking of the concerto as an analogy, and how the soloist is supported by the orchestra, my career would not exist without the hard work and sacrifices of the generations before me.
ScreenPicks: Would you like to share with us what your next projects are?
Bowers: I've just finished scoring Space Jam: A New Legacy, and am currently working on the film King Richard about Venus and Serena Williams' father Richard Williams. Additionally, Ben and I are working to develop a serialized iteration of Concerto where we facilitate more conversations between notable young individuals and their grandparents.
ShortsTV is releasing all of the films nominated for this year’s Academy Awards for Best Live Action Short, Best Animated Short and Best Documentary Short. See the trailer below!
Information on how to purchase tickets to view the short films can be seen here!