Image Credit: Dogwoof Pictures
Director: Natalie Johns
Starring: Max Richter
Running Time: 1h 39mins
Going to see Max Richter’s Sleep (2019) at City Screen was my first trip to the cinema since they began to reopen. It was undeniably strange, completely unlike any experience I’ve ever had at the cinema before. But even a less than half-empty cinema - populated by people wearing masks, which were only removed partially at times for a handful of popcorn - is still the cinema, and it is still special.
The strangeness of the experience, though, remained on my mind throughout the duration of this documentary. Its subject is an overnight concert, lasting eight hours, at an open venue in LA, played to five hundred and sixty people who instead of seats are given a fold out bed. In other words, an endeavour which would not be possible in these current times of social distancing.
The concert is a labour of love, and an ambitious one at that. Indeed, one of Richter’s collaborators remarks in the film, ‘It’s one thing to be ambitious about a work of art, or a project. But to be ambitious about a moment, at night, outside with complete strangers? Just unbelievable.’ It is a hard thing to realise that, for the time being, we as a species will have to be even more ambitious.
Max Richter is a German-British composer and musician, from a background of classical conservatoire training. This documentary, though, reminisces upon his progress as an artist from being steeped in complex modernism, to a more generally approachable and open attitude towards his music and its place in the world. As he and his wife Yulia joke, Richter is considered in the classical music community to be guilty of the greatest sin in that circle: popularity.
This, however, does not bother Richter or Yulia, a filmmaker who also plays a vital role in pulling off the Sleep project. Richter’s music is universal, emotive and hopeful - this project is the logical conclusion of those qualities.
The music itself is, of course, ethereal and written intentionally to be so, with the titles of the thirty-one movements including ‘nor earth, nor boundless sea’ and ‘moth-like stars’. But the material rotates around and repeatedly returns to only a few themes. This would be normal in a work of classical music, but most works of classical music do not last eight hours. Each note is completely intentional too, as part of a scheme designed to reflect and create the conditions of sleep. Throughout the entire process of creating Sleep, Richter was in regular correspondence with the Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman. He states in the film that he wanted the piece to have a firm grounding in science and mathematics.
This is partly why the first full performance of the piece took place at the Wellcome Trust Collection in London, and was recorded live for Radio Three as part of the station’s ‘Science & Music’ weekend. Nevertheless, the scientific and romantic strains, which make up the project’s DNA, temper one another - Richter still begins every performance of the piece by calling it an ‘eight-hour lullaby’.
The film does well to capture both of these strains, through interviews with Richter and the experts he consulted throughout the process, as well as interviews with his overawed audience members. The latter aspect perhaps makes for some of the most beautiful moments of the film, as the audience reflect on the impact the music and the experience had on them. How it made them feel closer to their lovers, how it made them feel closer to the strangers around them and to the world we inhabit.
Footage of the LA concert is woven throughout the film, in which we see audience members practicing tai chi and yoga, cuddling up together, weeping, and shuffling under their blankets as they sleep. As the concert plays out, Richter likes to stroll through the audience and people-watch in his breaks from playing - this is what feeds his passion.
We also gain insight into the lives of the artists, Max and Yulia, as people. How they met for the first time, twice. How they struggled to feed three children as broke artists, as Richter squeezed recording entire albums into single afternoons without the money to pay for the train fare back across London afterwards.
These stories are accompanied by reels of dreamy Super 8 footage contributed by Yulia - including shots of Max walking across sunny fields and laying down on the grass next to his children. It must be said that these moments in the film teeter not infrequently into cheesiness and would do just as well with half of these visual anecdotes, possibly even with none of them at all. However, the material itself is generally interesting and gives emotional context to the project.
The main gripe I have with the film is perhaps related to this, in that it felt a little too laboured and drawn out at times. As with the Super 8 footage, there could have been half as many whimsical shots of LA, half as many sequences of collaborators extolling Richter’s artistic virtues. There is of course an element of trying to emulate and reflect the slowness which is so integral to Sleep, but this sense could still have been created if the film was much shorter. Even at a relatively snappy ninety minutes, it could have been done in an hour.
With that being said, this shortfalling is easy to forgive. On the whole, Natalie Johns does a good job of providing an account of Richter and Mahr’s work, touching on its inspiration and its carrying out; the experiences which fed it as well as those which came out of it. My overwhelming feeling coming away from the film was a profound sense of the deeply humane (a word which popped up in the film), perhaps even utopian qualities of the endeavour.
Bringing people together to do ostensibly insane but beautiful things is very much fine by me, and I sincerely hope that we can keep doing them even in this time of being apart from each other.
Max Richter’s Sleep shown at City Screen York