Alex Rotaru's They Came to Play is a chronicle of the 5th-annual International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs. The event is held each year in Texas, and it is hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation. 75 pianists from around the world are called into the musical arena, and this film is a bit like a sports documentary: it's a guide to the players and the game.
Rotaru begins the movie by focusing on ten select competitors, eight in the United States and two in Europe. Both of the European competitors, Eberhard Zagrosek from Berlin and Anne-Marie Rouchon from Paris, are old enough to have been children in World War II. Most of the players here are older. The youngest person is 35, the oldest is 80. The performers have a variety of backgrounds. Clark Griffith is an AIDS survivor living in Texas, while Greg Fisher is a former drug addict who works for an autoglass company in Oklahoma. Greg has competed four times, and this year, his wife Miho will not be participating because he feels worrying about her ranking in the context applies extra pressure on him. She not only agrees to this, but she even turns his music during one performance. It's an important plot point, because there are apparently some who believe it's less impressive when the player uses sheet music; most of these guys play from memory. For Fisher, it ends up being a fatal error.
The competition lasts about a week, with the first three days being devoted to 10-minute miniconcerts by each of the 75 players. Then a jury decides on who should advance, whittling the pack down to 25. The winners are not always crowd favorites. A Texas jeweler named James Raphael gets cheers when he finishes his Manuel de Falla selection, but he doesn't score high enough to go forward. Some of the judges explain the process of how they pick the semifinalists, a combination of scoring and gut reaction. All 25 remaining people perform again, and then a scant six advance to the finals, where they play for half an hour each. We see snippets of the selected pianists on stage, with each of their songs identified for the viewers. We also see them before and after, including a fun montage where they detail their various superstitions. Again, it's just like professional athletes: the pregame ritual is essential to playing your best.
I'd be curious to know how Rotaru picked his subjects, since not all of them do well. In fact, he inserts three new participants into the narrative after the first round, because these men all become important to the final competition. (Most of them we saw before: in addition to the named pianists, many others sat down for Rotaru's camera and their opinions add to the bigger picture the filmmaker is striving for.) Unlike an actual sports film, unfortunately, there isn't really an inherent tension to the competition--this is where the analogy breaks down. There aren't even any outrageous gaffs where we see a pianist blow it. The closest we get to that is the representative from Steinway showing us how the first day of the festival destroyed the piano bench. We also don't get too deep into most of these guys' personalities, we just have enough time to get their occupation, a little life story, and their general outlook on life and music. I mean, seriously, we're not going to get any more info on how the Liberace Foundation convinced Philadelphia's Annette Dimedio that she needed a bigger act and inspired her to buy a ventriloquist's dummy and claim it was her manager?!
Even without the nail-biting drama, there's still something pleasing about seeing all of these eager enthusiasts get their chance to shine. They Came to Play is less about the International Piano Competition and more about the passion for art and expression. All of these people find some joy in banging the keys (well, except the one guy who says it is merely his gift, and he is burdened with having to use it), and all of them have come to some understanding of that compulsion and can articulate it. The man who ends up winning, in particular, is an exuberant personality whose optimism informs what comes out of his instrument. Rotaru would have done well to give him more screentime, honestly. We should have been rooting for him all along.