Sing Faster – The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle

USA, Jon Else (1999)

: Sing Faster - The Stagehands' Ring CycleI expected more from this stage crew-eye-view of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  I regularly attend the opera and I’ve even endured a production of the Ring myself at Chicago’s Lyric, so I had an idea of what to expect here. However, a camera following stagehands as they push and pull set pieces around the stage, with an occassional comment about dating ballet dancers, does not an interesting documentary make.  After about ten minutes, you pretty much get the point that there’s a lot of down-time between 30-minute arias, especially when the entire production lasts 18 hours. Lots of time to play poker and knit booties! Yeah, and then what?

Part of the problem stems from the filmmaker’s treatment of the stagehands themselves.  Other than the guy who acts as a narrator, explaining what’s happening onstage, the crew remains anonymous. We need personalities, characters, humor to engage the audience. We don’t really get to know them, they don’t stand out as characters, and they don’t lend themselves to any arc of a story line. Granted, it’s a documentary, but it still needs to lead somewhere.  And with comments like, “I’ve never killed anyone, but in operas killing is fairly common,” the audience is treated to neither humor nor insight.

I was reminded of the films of Nicolas Philibert, a French filmmaker who creates deceptively simple, yet thoroughly captivating, documentaries; he just seems to just turn on the camera and capture an engaging testament of a place.  Louvre City (behind the scenes at the Louvre museum) and Animals (the restoration of the Zoology Gallery in the Natural History Museum in Paris) are similar to Sing Faster–they all follow people as they do their jobs in unusual public places, in a rare behind-the-scenes sort of way that the public doesn’t usually get to see. His non-intrusive, observant camera and careful editing create a narrative that is interesting and utterly engaging. I kept thinking throughout this film that Philipert could really have done something with this material.

Maybe if you’ve never seen how a stageplay works behind the scenes, this might be an interesting glimpse behind the curtain, but I got bored about half-way through when I realized that not much new was going to happen. By the end, I felt like the stagehands themselves, killing time until the final curtain.  [*]

One thought on “Sing Faster – The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle

  1. I think part of the reason the documentary is so short is because at that time film was incredibly expensive to shoot in San Francisco. I was working in the local production industry (what there was of it), and the key issue at the time was finding money to rent equipment and buy film stock. That’s nothing new, but the cost of living in the Bay Area made it then (and still makes it now) prohibitively expensive.
    Not really an excuse, but perhaps an explanation. Still, mister Else is supposedly a journalism professor at UC Berkeley, and it might’ve helped him to add some conventional narrative and insights to the piece. But, I think his intent, money aside, may have been to give us a slice of life backstage, as opposed to a conventional “behind the scene” documentation.

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