The Sunshine Ukulele movie is sweet music from a funny instrument, the latest film from Irish writer and director Graham Jones.
The stars of the Sunshine Ukulele movie are a little wooden box and the musicians that give it life.
But before that, oh, to be a fly on the wall.
In the latest from the Very Fake News Dispatch, at The Factory, a time wrinkle captures a prescient conversation for the ages. Marshall McLuhan says, “Andy, I really think the medium is the message.” Andy Warhol thinks for a minute then replies, “Oh, that is so true. Everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” Andy turns to Jimi Hendrix and hands him a ukulele. “Jimi, play the Star-Spangled Banner on this Golden Ukulele for 15 minutes at Woodstock.” Jimi looks at the instrument. “This little dude is brown, Andy.” Jean-Michel Basquiat approaches with a can of gold spray paint. Jimi exclaims, “Check this out,” and blasts through the blues scale from one end of the fretboard to the other, “I’m gonna drop a Golden Nukulele on those farmers.” Andy chimes, “You’ll be famous for 15 seconds.” “The message is the medium,” says Marshall. Jean-Michel writes “NUKE” on the floor with a red crayon. Edie Sedgwick walks in the door and they all turn around. And the rest is history.
And what could have been.
Yes, the ukulele, underrated and underappreciated, could have used a boost. Consigned to the quirky, weird, eclectic, unique, and offbeat shadows of showbiz, it is the quintessential Rodney Dangerfield of stringed instruments. The ukulele, small, high strung, and inherently comedic, just can’t get any respect.
That is, until now. Like many things, a deeper dive reveals a world of complexity in this 2017 film.
Graham Jones, progenitor of the Nuascannán school of microbudget filmmaking, has fashioned the ukulele and its world of fascinating players into a bright little film that hits plenty of high notes on its way to making some very interesting music, not to mention less obvious points.
The story features a young boy in Ireland, played by Philip Fitzpatrick, who receives a ukulele as a gift. In a quest to find out just what he has in his hands, he surfs the internet for instruction and information on his new companion. There is plenty on the internet, as to be expected, and, in the sometimes bad and ugly world of cyberspace, here we have the good.
There are many YouTube style internet clips of various stars, celebrities, and normal, average, everyday people playing and performing. Do you want to see a short duet of Warren Buffett and Jon Bon Jovi singing and playing a duet accompanied by their ukuleles? Here is your chance. There are many great little performances here featuring stellar playing with short clips of each that provide maximum interest and never slow down. The ukulele community would have to be delirious over this film.
Not to belittle the little guy, but the ukulele might just be at its best in a intimate YouTube-type video along with just a girl, a song, and a lovely voice. Watch the film and you will see what I mean. Aspiring torch singers and pop cover-artists take note, all you need is “u” as in you and your uke. The ukulele is the ultimate king of the super-small room. It is heartening to see some young people playing a musical instrument, singing, having a great time, bravely taking it to the world of brusque opinion, and not just staring down into a cellphone screen.
Here we have multiple justified instances of 15 minutes of fame, democratized through a distribution vehicle which is the complete antithesis of the Hollywood studio system of old.
As the film winds its way through the interesting world of the ukulele and its players, it also winds its way through some decidedly old fashioned animation and video-editing technique. Old fashioned in, say, the way a VCR is old fashioned. These animations, though possibly unloved and forgotten today, still have validity, appeal, effectiveness, and a certain timeliness that never really goes away, but maybe just goes out of style. Some of them are simple and beginning types of filmmaking that is undoubtedly harder to create than it looks. Times change, techniques advance, people learn their craft, and the creations stand the test of time, etched in black and white, and, if not, they are still around anyway, as dated, and sometimes cringeworthy, historical markers.
Simpler forms of animation evolve to more complex filmmaking, and as a parallel, the musician evolves from simpler to more complex modes.
Recording a homemade music video and posting it to the internet is filmmaking stripped down to the bone. No special effects needed or wanted, this is compelling and utterly watchable film. Filmed for a song on a shoestring, these videos shame some multi-million dollar bombs. It is richly ironic that the studio lot is supplanted by a teenager’s bedroom that in a previous incarnation would have been adorned with photos of the same studio system’s stars. The medium is the message and the message is that the YouTube generation is the star. They are ready for their close-up and they are taking it themselves. Hello, selfie!
Most of these videos work very well, an amazing melding of music and moviemaking, brought to the world with nothing more than a camera, a computer, and a creative dream. And it can be broadcast to the world for almost nothing. How far back would you have to go to think this unheard of? Not very far at all. In the proposed Factory conversation above, lets say circa mid to late sixties or so, maybe early seventies, timelines and lifespans are flexible in this time wrinkle, computer science was probably still dreaming of personal computers and connections, but likely forming and working on the concepts. A decade or so later, homemade videotapes could be filmed, passed around, viewed on VCRs and broadcast on community television. Twenty or more years ago, the internet superhighway idea started circulating in mainstream media. The explosion that followed boggles the mind.
Playing a ukulele is kind of old fashioned, too. Really, old fashioned. It is hard to learn. Eating ice cream is easy. Maybe the uke is not your cup of tea. Or maybe it is. A little investigation helped our young would-be player from Ireland find out. It is a big world out there for a young boy. There are many things of interest: sports, music, reading, the natural world, superheroes, movie villains, and characters of the imagination. You take a little bit from here and learn a little bit from over there. You find out what you like and what interests you. If something doesn’t float your boat, at least you looked into it and are better for it, replete with a greater understanding as you move on.
The Sunshine Ukulele movie makes the ukulele spin through the internet a breeze because it does it all the work for you. About all that is missing is Foxey Lady, Highway Chile, and Little Wing on a Golden Nukulele by the master himself. Somebody post that video, please.