David Grubin’s first feature film will prove quite the experience for musicians, music lovers and, well, pretty much everyone else. In Downtown Express, the esteemed television documentarian and producer marries his passion for classical music to his deep interest in the American immigrant’s personal, political and cultural experience. The resulting product is a story not entirely unfamiliar to the viewer or the big screen: after immigrating to the States, a parent and child clash as they develop conflicting notions of the American Dream. However, the musical essence of the film (which has no score, but a constant, live flow of music throughout) is fundamentally new. As the first independent American film to feature a classical musician as the lead, Downtown Express hits almost all of the right notes.
Grammy-nominated violinist Philippe Quint plays Sasha, a Russian immigrant and Julliard music student living in Brighton Beach with his father (Michael Cumptsy) and cousin (Ashley Springer). Although the family lives modestly, Vadim, the father, is pleased to see Sasha living out his (the father’s) dream of becoming a successful, classical musician: “You are going to be eagle, Sasha! An eagle soaring across America!” he says, laughing. Vadim is kind, but overbearing (often bursting in on Sasha’s lessons and schooling the Julliard instructor on Tchaikovsky as only a Russian cellist could) and becomes angry when Sasha does the unthinkable—and joins a band.
While Cumptsy is a rather seasoned actor (with numerous roles on Broadway and in film and television), Quint took acting classes for three years to prepare for the role of Sasha. His inexperience sometimes shows, but the overall performance is solid. The numerous musical performances are, however, nothing short of astounding.
When Sasha meets Ramona (played by New York songstress and Paste favorite, Nellie McKay), he immediately and intensely falls for her—and her band. As lead singer of the band Downtown Express, Ramona and her band’s fusion of blues, punk, funk and pop are a forbidden fruit to Sasha, as desperate as he his to break free from his father. Upon joining the group, he introduces a new, classical element that changes their sound, and his life. Although he continues his studies at Julliard, he soon discovers that a single path must ultimately be chosen.
Romance and rhythm play against and alongside each other, but the focus of Downtown Express is really the life of the music. The plot itself plays second fiddle to the brilliant sounds Sasha hears and plays under and aboveground. Many films are musical or well scored, but Downtown Express is singular in that its art form is a central character, speaking and conveying much of the emotion and tension of the piece. Unfortunately, this also weakens the film in some ways, as the show-stealing, real-time score often overshadows the rest of the cast and the narrative as a whole.
Nonetheless, with stirring, affective songs like “Ain’t No Trains,” and “I Look At You” (composed by Nellie McKay and Michael Bacon), it’s easy to forgive the occasional lull or misstep in Downtown Express. (Viewers did this with Hugo, where the overall experience was too grand for anyone to make much of a fuss about anything else.) Ultimately, David Grubin has directed a symphonic ode to musicians in New York and to artists everywhere who know that living out one’s passion can be the truest form of the American Dream.
Director: David Grubin
Writer: David Grubin, Kathleen Cahill
Starring: Philippe Quint, Nellie McKay
Release Date: Apr. 20, 2012