Song of Lahore: Take Two, by David Bax
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Andy Schocken’s Song of Lahore is a documentary with a bit of a split personality. Roughly halfway through, it sets aside most of what it has been about in order to focus on telling another story altogether. It’s a conspicuous and clunky shift but, for what it’s worth, the film’s second identity is the better one. Still, that’s not quite enough to rescue it from blandness.
Sachal Studios in Lahore, Pakistan is something of a home base and safe haven for the city’s musicians, many of whom are older practitioners of a dying tradition. Facing a lack of interest in their craft, they decided to drum up attention by posting on YouTube videos of themselves playing jazz standards with traditional Pakistani instrumentation. The clips proved to be a hit, so much so that Wynton Marsalis invited some of them to come perform with his group at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Thus the Sachal Jazz Ensemble was born.
In Song’s first half, Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken detail the reasons for the downfall of these men’s music. Increasing control of fundamentalist Muslims starting in the 1970s instigated a harsh crackdown on such performers. Music is forbidden by many interpretations of Sharia Law. Musicians themselves were – and continue to be – harassed and beaten in the streets, their instruments taken from them and destroyed. It’s awful stuff but the filmmakers’ presentation of these realities is informational and dry. They fail to translate into cinema the anguished hearts of these men, even when one of them openly weeps at his son’s lack of interest in the music that he sees as a continuance connecting him to his father, grandfather and so on through his family’s past.
In the second half, the men travel to New York City to prepare for and play with Marsalis and company. Their sheer joy at being celebrated for something they have to hide in soundproof rooms back home is palpable even before they vocalize it. They practically frolic through Times Square, delighting at bucket drummers and buskers that most of us would ignore, reveling in what their lives could be in this alternate reality.
Here, Obaid-Chinoy and Schocken pick up the pace. The fast-approaching deadline of the concert injects instant suspense, which is only heightened when early rehearsals don’t go well at all. Some of the Pakistani players can’t find common ground with the jazz professionals and vice versa. A ticking clock is simple, classic and reliable filmmaking and it helps that this one is not manufactured by the directors. Well, not entirely; it’s clear that multiple performances are cut together to make the culmination look like they have one shot at opening night. But, before that, stakes are legitimately high, as proven when one of Sachal’s number has to be let go for his inability to improvise.
It may be instructive to aspiring documentarians to note that, when the film’s sites seem to be set lower, it’s actually more able to translate its point about what music means to these men and to Pakistan. Song of Lahore is ultimately hobbled by its clumsy first half but it reaches greater heights when its goals aren’t so self-consciously lofty.