BeatNik Interviews Mighty Uke Filmmakers – Director Tony Coleman and Producer Margaret Meagher
One of the most exciting projects to come along lately is the documentary MIGHTY UKE – a film chronicling the amazing resurgence in popularity worldwide for our beloved ukulele!
The film has been showing internationally at film festivals and for ukulele clubs and organizations, but sadly many of us have not had the chance to see it yet. But don’t despair – it’s coming very soon to DVD! When, you ask? Read on, my friends…
BeatNik: Margaret and Tony, thank you for joining us here at UkeCanPlay.com. As ukulele lovers, one thing we’ve all noticed is a surge of popularity for the ukulele these days – what do you attribute this to?
Margaret and Tony: I think the resurgence is due to a couple of things, but mainly it’s the result of people realizing that making music is good – good fun and good for you. Many of us grew up without learning to play an instrument and always thought in the back of our minds that we would pick one up some day. As we get older, it gets harder to learn and our options narrow. The uke is an instrument you can learn to play well enough in a short time to accompany yourself or strum along with a group. That makes it an ideal instrument for beginners and, especially, adult beginners. In the age of recorded music, the level of expertise you need to impress people is so high that all but a very few musicians are good enough, so those of us who are not virtuosos are encouraged to leave the music-making to the pros. That makes it much harder to learn to play. But the public’s expectations around the uke are so low that there seems to be more tolerance for beginners.
B: That’s funny, because my thought process when I started was, “It only has four strings – how hard can it be?” Ha! Then I saw the now-classic Jake video of Gently Weeps, and reality set in. We are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but we both make music with our ukes and that’s what’s important. So, tell me… Great ideas always seem so easy in retrospect – what gave you the idea to make this film?
M & T: There were many stages in the planning of this doc, but the seed idea came from the ukulele itself. Tony inherited one. It had sentimental value but was unplayable, so I bought him one for his birthday. He was immediately smitten, but it was the reaction of our friends that cemented the idea in our minds. Everyone had the same reaction: they felt somehow freed from expectations, of themselves most especially, but also of genre and style and even purpose. They found that they were making a different kind of music from what they usually did. Many of them went and bought ukes and, as we watched the spread of simple joy in playing among our professional musician friends, we knew there was a story there. When we started researching the history and saw how long and interesting it was, we knew there was a film.
B: It’s so true that the music of the ukulele seems to transport you to a place free from the stresses of life. It’s finding its way into lots of musical genres, like pop and punk, as well as sustaining interest in traditional ones like jazz and Hawaiian. What’s the cutting edge for ukulele music today?
M & T: When you’re talking about a global movement, of course the cutting edge isn’t just in one place, movement or person. Jon Braman does hip hop on his uke, not many folks are doing that. James Hill plays his with found objects, including chopsticks, combs and kitchen implements, and is exploring different voicings of popular uke tunes and different techniques for recording.
B: Kitchen implements? Haha! Well, that fits my definition of cutting edge! There was so much talent from all over the world in your film. Tell us a little about your process in making this documentary.
M & T: We started small, intending just to make a 20-minute film, but as we got a sense of the global community, we found ways to expand the project. The first thing we did was to call ukulele historian John King, who was enormously helpful throughout filming, but who died shortly afterward. He was a big part of this film and we miss him very much. After that first long research phase, during which we shaped our understanding of the story and planned who, what and where to film, we did three short shoots and cut together a trailer, even though there wasn’t a film to advertise yet. That trailer allowed us to refine our own vision on look, feel and content as well as to show potential interviewees, funding agents, anyone who might want to know, what the film would look like, what the tone and general content would be. That was what made the film possible, really. That trailer garnered a lot of interest and made connections where words and paper alone would not and could not have. If anyone is looking for advice on how to start the process of making a movie, that would be mine: make a trailer first.
B: Wow, that is such great advice. In making this film, you must have met many, many uke players. Where is the ukulele is seeing its biggest resurgence?
M & T: I’d say the love of uke is expanding most in the under 30 and over 45s. As I said before, many people in their middle age are finding that they missed learning to play music and they’re sorry about that. The uke is giving those people an entrée into the world of music-making because it’s pretty easy to learn a few chords and get strumming right away. The under 30s have a slightly different story. Most of them never heard of Tiny Tim, or the uke at all, for that matter, and have no associations with the instrument. Many of them have parents who love the rock and roll guitar, and so, when they look for an instrument of rebellion, the opposite of what their parents are doing, they turn to the opposite of the rock and roll guitar, which, when you think about it, is the uke.
B: In your travels, who stands out as the next breakthrough ukulele artist?
M & T: The answer to that question depends on what you mean by breakthrough artist. Ukes for Peace, for example, aren’t such accomplished musicians, but they’re bringing Jewish and Muslim Israeli communities together by allowing their kids to play together. This is a real breakthrough, in my view.
B: That is wonderful. My website byline is ‘Better Living Through Ukulele’. Sounds like they are making it a reality! Okay, as a former animation executive I have to ask: Who did the fantastic animations in the film and website?
M & T: That’d be me, Margaret. Because the uke originated in a time before moving pictures, there are not many images available of the relevant people, places and events. We were looking for a creative solution to this deficit, so we tried some simple animation. I’d never done that before, but we figured it out and it worked so well that we expanded it to be part of the look of the film and website.
B: You really created some charming moments. Well done, Margaret! I visited your website and saw something I think will be of great interest to my readers. Can you tell us a little about the Mighty Uke Roadshow?
M & T: With DVD and TV technology, it’s pretty hard to get people out to the movies, so we wanted to bring something to our film that people couldn’t get in their own living rooms. The Roadshow makes an event of the movie. You get the film, a performance by an accomplished uke player as well as an opportunity to play. Every Roadshow ends with a strum-along, which sometimes spills out into the lobby and goes on till the theatre closes. That’s something you can’t get in your living room.
B: What do we need to do to have the film shown at our own ukulele club?
M & T: We’re planning a screening kit. It’ll be the DVD, posters, T-shirts and other support materials and you’ll get a single public screening.
B: I’m so excited to own this film! When can we expect the DVD release?
M & T: The scheduled release date is September 28th. That should leave everyone plenty of time to pinpoint all the uke fans on their Christmas lists. It’ll be the must-have item of the season!
B: That’s for sure – Santa, don’t fail me now! Margaret and Tony, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I believe you have made a fantastic contribution to the world by bringing them a little closer to the instrument that creates such happiness and joy.
In closing, I’d like to send my readers to a semi-hidden area of your website… The Mighty Uke Do-It-Yourself Soundtrack! A little hard to find for such a treasure. Allow me to give it the attention it deserves:
The Mighty Uke DIY Soundtrack features top ukulele artists including Jake Shimabukuro, James Hill, Ukuleles for Peace Orchestra, Jim Beloff, John King, Bill Tapia, Tiny Tim and more. Awesome!