REVIEW: How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 104 minutes | Release Date: March 26th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Kitchen Table Films / FilmBuff
Director(s): Gary King
Writer(s): Gary King

“It’s not like I’m going to shove you down the stairs or anything”

Artistic integrity—is it a dying concept or has the definition simply changed? As a freshman in college I began admitting to anyone who asked my major that pursuing a career in graphic design meant I sold out. Yes, before I had even begun. In hindsight, looking at today’s generation learn about the greats who succumbed to mental illness, poverty, and/or both as they struggled to put their voice/heart/essence/soul onto whatever canvas it was they deemed worthy to hold it makes me wonder if true genius is dead. We’re no longer engaged in a world of Medicis pouring money into artists they declare masters when the internet provides success to all with a passion to achieve it—or at least the humility to make a fool of themselves for cash in lieu of true talent.

Writer/director Gary King plays with this idea in his award-winning musical How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song while also utilizing the power of twentieth century connectivity to fund the endeavor. Whether or not the script or idea behind it is good enough for big screen marquees has always been in the eye of a very specific, generally close-minded beholder. If those in control of cultural power anointed it, the door to its lengthy journey’s next step was opened. But this is no longer the case as fame has evolved into what a character in King’s film describes aptly as “praise by one’s peers”. For his work to hit theaters—to even take the challenge of a genre he loved yet never attempted—he turned to his peers and was validated before footage even rolled.

It goes back to artistic integrity and finding a way to be true to oneself in an industry that excels at corrupting the lofty visions of naïve innocents into those of manufactured, redundant hacks. This is where casting director Gunther’s (Mark DiConzo) fortune cookie wisdom of it taking one person to change your life comes in. We strive so hard to be confidently uncompromising in our product being worth the time of audience members forking over hard earned cash that we sometimes blind ourselves to opportunity. One small concession could mean the difference between living paycheck to paycheck and acquiring the ability to comfortably reside in a city forever hoping you’ll fail with another younger version of yourself waiting in the wings. It’s this leap of faith that separates the doers from dreamers.

And if ever there was a dreamer, the titular Joe Schermann (playing a fictionalized version of himself) is he. A virtuoso who needs not the praise of friends due to knowing the level of talent brimming inside, only unique, discordant, and syncopated notes can be put to page when composing what’s hopefully his perfect musical. So engrossed in this grand fantasy of a masterpiece lying infinitely dormant if he never earns the capital necessary to produce it or find a beneficiary who agrees it’s virtuous, Joe isolates himself from the human experience crucial to honing his voice. Gunther brings an amazing chance at composing an Off-Broadway musical as long as he accepts collaborating with a director whose taste will be paramount. Desperate to decline so as not to sell his soul, Joe ultimately accepts.

This is the fine line on which artists live choosing between fiscal and creative success since few projects ever possess both. As Joe plunges into the eccentrically banal mind of Libby Vonderkill’s (an hysterically dry Jenn Dees) litany of one-word adjectives to “punch up” his music, those around him confront their own moments of clarity. His actress girlfriend Evey (Christina Rose) yearns for him to write her a love song despite never seemingly good enough to be his muse while his newfound inspiration in singer Summer (Debbie Williams) flitters between earning a role through sheer talent and a willingness to flirt her way to the top. The former is Joe’s personal love, the latter his professional desire. Should they be mutually exclusive? Should nepotism ever be allowed to overpower the artistic drive for perfection?

These are the questions asked as love collides with work to lay bare true feelings and desire and show how adoration for one’s talent does not equal the desire to be with them for the rest of your life. DiConzo plays the voice of reason spouting off how there is no perfect song or girl or anything for that matter. For Joe, Evey, and Summer to achieve their dreams they must break free from safe platitudes and earn it through hard work rather than assumptions. While only one of these girls can vault Schermann’s book into the upper stratosphere, fate will rear its head to potentially derail the whole thing. But this is the chance we take—creating for the largest audience possible in order to continue our quest towards greatness.

An obvious passion project with parallels running wild—Schermann playing himself as King cameos as Evey’s favorite director—How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song is the epitome of blue-collar artists pushing through personal pain to garner professional praise. A wall-to-wall infusion of catchy songs with a singularly brilliant mid-point montage of Broadway dance shot in a sarcastic fever dream of raw talent, King is somehow able to retain his indie NYC aesthetic. Crosscutting multiple locations for single conversations and utilizing a ton of split screen, we watch his characters wrestle against personal glory and its sacrifice for friends. And just as its clichéd musical “happily ever after” appears on the horizon, real life prevails in a bittersweet denouement of love evolving into respect for the genius our materialistic consumer world is too quick to dismiss.

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