The theater is indeed a realm of magic. Much more than the cinema, which can hide its tricks behind clever editing and a myriad of special effects, the stage must place its slight-of-hand within the parameters of a pragmatic space. Add in the fact that, night after night, these visual deceptions must function, like clockwork, to maintain the show's integrity, and the task beforehand seems immeasurable. Films get another take. Stagehands don't. That's why the job of a theatrical company is so complex. One presentation, they are keeping a minimal set neat and organized, the next they are creating cascading waterfalls and subterranean kingdoms. Through a combination of intense preparation, split second timing and incredible cooperation, the impossible not only seems probably, but it is often corralled, channeled and crafted into marvelous works of amphitheater amazement. So imagine having to create (and then destroy) the home of the Norse gods, the sacred Valhalla. Or how about requiring a 50-foot dragon to appear amongst the tired, tortured souls of an unholy underworld, ready to do battle with a steadfast warrior. Mountains must shake and the heavens open, as giants, dwarves and Amazonian Valkyries wage an epic battle over the wealth of the Universe. These are just a few of the Herculean obstacles that must be overcome when any company attempts to perform Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle: a 17-hour Lord of the Rings style mythology about stolen gold and the various mortal and immortal beings that conspire and clash over it.
Imagine getting a chance to see what happens behind the scenes at such a gargantuan undertaking. Visualize the traumas and torments, the mistakes and the miracles. Now, take all those images and create your own internal movie, because you will need it after watching Sing Faster – A Stagehands' Ring Cycle. This documentary by filmmaker Jon Else purports to tell us the significant elements, the pains and the perfections, that befall a ragtag group of Union theater craftsman when they were asked to bring this overwhelmingly massive opera to life. Instead, we learn very little about the art of stagecraft and even less about how hard it was to realize Wagner's scope for the proscenium.
In the realm of the epic opera, no work is more inflated than Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelugen, better known as The Ring Cycle. Comprised of three complete operas and a near full-length introduction, it usually runs about 17 hours when produced in total. It is either a masterpiece, or an overindulgent work of hubris, considering what side of the fence your fancy falls on. A traditional Norse legend channeled through the German composer's own thematic conceits (very much like British mythology and a certain J.R.R. Tolkein), this colossal symphonic undertaking is almost always presented as spectacle, with tons of special effects, elaborate sets and larger than life interpretations of the storyline. When the San Francisco Opera decided to perform the marathon magnum opus as part of its regular season, they understood that the ambitious scope of the show threatened to overwhelm even the most steadfast of artisan resolves. Luckily, the incredibly skilled crew ensconced behind the backdrop was up to the task, and filmmaker Jon Else was there to capture it all. The result was Sing Faster – The Stagehands' Ring Cycle. Instead of a performers' eye view of what it takes to create Wagner's world of mythical beings, the day-to-day drudgery of untold labors of the staff supposedly illustrates the amazing complexities in staging such a spectacle.
As a documentary, Sing Faster – The Stagehands' Ring Cycle lives up to about 2/3rds of the genre moniker. It is indeed a document, a souvenir of a time when the San Francisco Opera put on a performance of Der Ring Des Nibelugen and minimal hi-jinx ensued. Part of the problem with this paltry presentation – it barely runs an hour – is the fact that, for all the imagined issues that must have arisen during the groundwork for such a vast stage piece, we learn very little about what went into the actual creation. Oh sure, we get lots of stagehands and go-fers running around looking busy, babbling incoherent shorthand into headset microphones as every crisis is met with a snap decision and a group response. But this doesn't make Sing Faster any more perceptive. Instead, it fails to give us any of the background necessary to appreciate the well-honed teamwork of the tireless crew, and we are kept at a dull distance as problems pass before us like moths to a mid-summer streetlight. Sure, we are told a little about the convoluted narrative employed by Wagner with all its dwarves, giants, gods and monsters. But as for how any of these elements were realized and wrangled, we are left to scratch our heads.
The back stage saga is one of the more potent and powerful attention grabbers in the entertainment medium. Books and plays about the life behind the curtain are rife with tantalizing tales of disasters averted and catastrophes in the making. Sing Faster has very little of this internal intrigue. Instead, it sees the overall scale of the performances and the complexities of the preparations and just stands back in awe, never once broaching beyond the basic and surface. In many ways it's just a superficial peek into the arduous measures that go into a stage production and nothing more. Sing Faster acts like the 55-minute trailer for the real movie to come. Instead of giving us the detail we require to come away with some feeling of how these proficient professionals pulled it together, we are given a brief skimming of the trials and tribulations, and then, before we know it, everything is ephemeral arias and in-jokes. There are more insults than insights here, more goofing around among the casual cast than technical information. Sure, an overdose of 'hot-to' can be as boring as a lack of it, but there is no happy medium in Sing Faster. We are witness to several situations that require an immediate fix or rapid-fire resolution. But we never get the circumstances, either before or after the emergency to help us comprehend the crisis. Maybe we are just supposed to assume that this is business as usual for a stage crew. But without understanding how HARD something is to achieve, when won't really marvel at how well it's accomplished. This is the biggest flaw in Sing Faster: the complete lack of context.
Perhaps the single best sequence in this symposium to shortchanging is the final 60 seconds, a collection of time lapse vignettes that show us the entire 17 hours of The Ring Cycle in rapid fire, fascinating succession. As each set arrives in all its regal splendor, all the time, effort and preparation that went into their creation pays off in a stunning visual delight. And had Sing Faster better prepared us for this amazing montage, the transcendent moment would have been more than complete. Unfortunately, we have the exact opposite reaction. We begin to question the relevance of all we've seen before: the card games, the gossip, the perplexed look on the faces of workmen as the performers sing their hearts – and lungs – out. Just like the occasional voice-overs where a bearded hobbit of a handyman tells us parts of The Ring Cycle's complex narrative (usually to the resounding "Huh?" of his fellow workers), we wonder why we are being given certain pieces of information while having many, more substantive portions, left out. Like an impressionist painter, Jon Else must have seen his job as a provider of essence, not essentials. Maybe we are supposed to get the feel, not the blueprints, for how The Ring Cycle is approached as a production. Or possibly this is just the briefest of sketches, an outline for a far deeper examination of the art of the theater. Whatever the true intent, Sing Faster fails to live up to it time and time again.
While not completely boring or without merit, Sing Faster is in no way definitive to its subject matter. It can be entertaining (as when the initial rehearsals are stalled when the Maestro can't make up his mind what he wants to do first), engaging (the systematic ritual the stagehands go through to change the rubber flooring) or evasive (a member of the cast starts hanging around the main technician in the show for no explainable reason – she's just always there). We do see some of the particulars of performance (how oxygen must be placed backstage so that the singers have air to combat the Co2 fog) and see a snafu or two (the dragon "malfunctions"). But Sing Faster – The Stagehands' Ring Cycle doesn't highlight or do justice to either of the topics it wants to celebrate. Like it or loathe it, but Wagner's work is one of the traditional monoliths of the musical stage. To take on the challenge and succeed is to climb the Everest of opera. Equally significant is the input of technicians and craftsman, all whom have to bring these legendary legions to life. And while we see some of the surface evidence of both skill positions, the treatment is mostly timid. Sing Faster should have focused on a single facet of the production and followed it through from beginning to end. Better yet, it could have taken the narrative of the opus itself and used it as a theme to crosscut with the predicament facing the artisans. Instead, we get a vague, mildly amusing look at how workers pass the time in between setups. And while this does have its elements of interest, it pales in comparison to the chaos reigning all around. Sing Faster should have been better. It had everything going for it – except a clear vision of what it wanted to accomplish.
Presented in a PBS friendly 1.33:1 full screen image, the transfer of Sing Faster – The Stagehands' Ring Cycle from Docurama is a mixed-up muddle. Filled with grain, some cluttered moments of pixelization, and never having the clarity or contrast to keep the details in focus, the picture here is relatively shoddy. We expect a DVD image, even from something as low budget as this behind the scenes showcase, to look better than broadcast or VHS versions of the presentation. But one guesses that this compressed mess is a step down from what the film looked like when it was shown at Sundance (where it won (?) the Filmmaker's Trophy) or retransmitted in any other medium. While not horribly unwatchable, this is still a substandard transfer.
Opera can be beautiful. It can also be aurally aggravating. The Dolby Digital Stereo presentation of this title is decent, but won't do very much to sway your feelings – pro or con – about the sonic sweetness of the aria. While the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence (for those unversed with the score – think Robert Duvall leading the attack on the surfing shoreline in Apocalypse Now) is a pure decibel delight, the behind the scene situations suffer from a cacophony of conflicting noises (voices, tools, instrumental rehearsals, etc.). While this is obviously meant to create the feeling of being in the middle of this presentation maelstrom, without a true channel specific audio track, everything just melds into a distorted din. The sound here is acceptable, but could have been handled in a far more feasible, and ear friendly, fashion.
Unless a little of Jon Else's personal and professional story moves you to digital delirium, or you have a hankering to see what other products Docurama has to offer, the bonus features here will do less than impress. As a matter of fact, you've just been introduced to them. Else's extensive credits are impressive, but his text biography is formless, covering areas in a wildly sporadic fashion. And anyone who owns another DVD from this documentary specialist has already witnessed the trailers presented. Not a lot of added feature excellence for the money, considering the film itself is under an hour long.
Hoping that something like Sing Faster – The Stagehands' Ring Cycle could cover all the aspects of bringing Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelugen to the stage in a standard cinematic running time is, perhaps, asking for far too much. After all, condensing years of training, months of preparation and hours of performance into something coherent would be impossible for even the most organized auteur. But what director Jon Else has done here is contradictory to any in-depth dissertation. Sing Faster feels like a brief explanation of what really happened behind the scenes at the San Francisco Opera's production of The Ring Cycle, a scattershot scrapbook of minor incidents and inconsequential set pieces that don't even begin to bring the flavor of what was required to helm a staging of this magnitude. While it is not boring, or even trivial, it fails to function under the constraints of its themes. Instead of giving us insight into the techniques and traps of working theatrical magic performance after performance, it's more a collection of semi-colorful characters spouting off about ancillary issues, with only occasional reference to what's happening on stage. There are better glimpses at what happens backstage as the actors take their bows or the divas delight with an amazing vocal performance. Sing Faster – The Stagehands' Ring Cycle is not one of those enlightening offerings. It's interesting, but ultimately ineffectual.
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