During the height of the pandemic, when the killing of George Floyd sparked widespread protests throughout America, filmmaker and Yamaha executive Chris Gero felt compelled to create something that celebrated the unifying power of music. Within six months, he wrapped filming what would eventually become The Sound of Us, a masterful, Cannes-winning documentary composed of nine stand-alone stories. Shot across five countries, the vignettes demonstrate music’s incredible ability to heal, connect, unite, and inspire us, even—especially—in times of crisis. As put by Gero, “The documentary drives home the idea that music transcends all of the wrong in the world. This is a film to help you realize that there is hope and there is goodness and that we’re all in this together.”
The Sound of Us opens with a particularly raw and poignant segment that details the work of Project: Music Heals Us, a nonprofit that organizes virtual live music performances for hospitalized COVID-19 patients, as well as in-person music programming for incarcerated populations. Equally affecting segments roll out in succession—about the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s mission to perpetuate the history of African-American music; about how Italian composer and pianist Francesco Lotoro has dedicated his life to finding and resurrecting songs written in World War II concentration camps; about the Second Time Arounders Marching Band, which gives former high school or college marching band members the chance to perform again; about composer Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed” multi-movement choral work inspired by the final words of seven unarmed Black men before they were killed by police.
Interspersed are interviews with greats like Patti Smith and Ben Folds, as well as rousing performances by artists like Avery*Sunshine, Sarah McLachlan, and slam poet Sekou Andrews, whose masterful rethinking of the hymn “Amazing Grace” challenges viewers to acknowledge the song’s fraught past and reconsider it as an anthem for equality today.
Over the phone, Gero speaks with BAZAAR.com about the heartbreaking inspiration behind the documentary, making it during the pandemic in record time, and why music always has and always will be the most powerful vehicle for truth.
The Sound of Us recently won the Movie That Matters Award at Cannes. What was your reaction when you found out?
Honestly, I was quite surprised but also not surprised. The film is quite unique. It’s so deep, and it has such a powerful message—by design, I wanted the film to represent the best in us. So when I got the call from our agent in Europe saying that the Better World Fund was going to honor the film, I was quite happy. I made it to send a message through the medium of music that we are all inherently good. So when I got the call, I was just really kind of overjoyed, but weirdly enough, I just kind of remember sitting back in my chair and saying, ‘Well, that just completely makes sense, because it is a film that matters.’ It makes me quite proud.
When you’re watching the documentary, you understand that each of its segments is conveying something incredibly meaningful about the power of music, and yet it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that is. How would you boil down what it’s about?
It’s hard for me to describe it or for me to translate, but it’s about the best of who we all are through the lens of what we accept in music. That’s it. If I look at a film with music in it and then a film without music in it—or if I’m at a wedding and a father is walking a bride down the aisle, what is that with music, and what is it without music? It is this indescribable feeling that makes you better, makes you bigger, makes you compassionate, makes you bold, makes you emboldened, makes you brave. It creates this ability inside of you. It’s almost like a superpower. Honestly, the film just relays this idea that all music is the truth of what’s inside of you.
Music doesn’t lie. And what I’m championing is the idea that we’re no better than each other. We’re all in this together. We are all equal, and music proves that.
What inspired you to make it, and in record time? From conception to wrapping filming, the entire production took six months.
I’m not a political person. I’m honestly straight up the center, but dignity took over for me. After what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I really started to struggle with questions of, What are we doing to each other, what’s happening in the world, and what’s happening in our country? Is this what we’re really about? I found myself doomscrolling through the year and stuck to the television screen every single night, and just getting caught up in everything that was going on.
Last summer, my 11-year-old, who’s just this really wise little kid, he said, “What’s wrong with you?” And I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “You just stare at your computer all the time.” And I said, “There’s a lot going on.”
In full transparency, our youngest daughter has leukemia, and she had just come out of treatment after three years. And there was this isolation that we felt, because there was no data on a kid with cancer in COVID. And so we literally shut down for months. I didn’t leave the house for probably five or six months. I got really angry in it. And I got really angry with the lack of common decency, with the level of indignity. And so my son said, “You know, Dad, you’re a filmmaker. If you have something to say, you should probably say it.” And so this idea started to germinate in summer of last year.
How were you able to get it off the ground?
I work for Yamaha, and every year, I produce a large-format concert at this big convention called the NAMM convention. It’s a musical manufacturer convention, and about 100,000 people show up for it in Anaheim, California. We knew it was going to be virtual this year, and my boss said to me, “I think we should just do a large-format online concert.” And I just said to him, “No one’s going to watch it. We’re all burnt out.” I just said, “Listen, I’m kicking around this idea about this documentary, and I think this is what I want to make instead.”
He had remarkable foresight to allow me to speak my voice on what music is to me, and what it means to the world. It has everything to do with who we are as people. Who we are, universally, uniquely tied together through this one idea. We started working through how to demonstrate the goodness of people, and the extraordinary lengths they will go to prove, not to other people, but just to themselves, the goodness of who they are through music. And now, the idea was to just kind of like come up with a bunch of remarkable stories of amazing people who give all of it, everything they have, to this idea. And so that’s actually the genesis of how it kind of came together.
There are literally endless worthy stories about the power of music that could have made it into this documentary. How did you decide and source the nine that you wanted to run with?
Any good painter starts with a whole pile of paint, and then works their way through what’s going to work for them in real time. A film like this is very, very difficult to script, or to storyboard, because so much happens in real time, and we had such a tight window to film. I asked the producers to go out and to find extraordinary stories of people doing extraordinary things in music. We probably had 30 stories.
It really started when Sara Bachler, one of the writers and producers, came to me and said, “Do you know about this gentleman named Francesco Lotoro?” And I said, “I do not.” And she showed me a clip of him on 60 Minutes. And I was immediately, completely captured by his thankless, 35-yearlong dedication to archiving music written by prisoners in concentration camps that was lost to the world. It made me fall madly in love with this crazy-looking professor who combs the world looking for all of this lost work. His purpose in this life is to retrieve it and re-create it. That was really kind of the start of the journey.
Patti Smith, Jason Mraz, and Sarah McLachlan are among the bigger celebrities who appear briefly in the film, but it’s really not about them at all. How did you choose who to go out to and how much to feature them?
Everyone in the film who was interviewed or featured is philanthropic without the fanfare of taking a selfie to prove that they’re being good in society. Sarah is a really, really great example. Sarah and I have been great friends for a long time, she is 100 percent the real deal. She goes through her life self-funding her music school and has been doing so for the last 20 years. She is so compassionate about uplifting children out of difficult times through music. She pays for it. All the administrative costs, all of the teachers, she pays for herself, out of pocket.
Patti Smith is just this beautiful poet, and so understated, and so remarkable. Honestly, I was a little nervous about what that was going to look like, because I didn’t really know her too well. I had phenomenal respect for her career, her being a pioneer, her being this remarkable poet. But in the interview, she gave us the most profound insight as to what music is. The same thing with Jason Mraz. He himself funds an art school in San Diego. All of those people all had purpose. All of those people had something to give that was bigger than themselves.
The entire film is scored—there isn’t really a minute without music in the background. Tell me about the soundtrack and the role you wanted it to play.
I wrote everything other than the artists’ performances. Most of the films that I direct, I also score myself. This project was entirely different, because it’s two hours of original composition. If you go back and listen to it, some of it is gigantic, and some of it is just kind of complementary to what you’re listening to. If you go back and listen to the Holocaust segment, that is a very, very complex piece of music. And it had to match from beginning to end, so it’s 15 minutes of a composition. It had to match the depth of the subject matter. There’s just this heartbreak that you are immersed in. Every single segment has a different theme to it, and then there are these big crescendo moments at the end.
The main subject matter and the main character in the film is music. The dialogue is important, the storyline is important, but what’s most important is how you engage in the music. In films like Star Wars, the soundtrack is a really big part of it, but a good 80 percent of it is buried underneath action and dialogue. I didn’t want that to happen here, because music is the main character.
Sekou Andrews’s version of “Amazing Grace” knocked me off my seat. I loved that there were no instruments. He wasn’t singing. It was all just about rhythm and his incredible lyricism. How did his rethinking of such an iconic song come about?
“Amazing Grace” was the inception of the entire film. There was this question of what the most recorded piece of music in history means to different people. Everybody relates to it for their own good and for the good of each other.
Very few people know this but John Newton, the Englishman who wrote the hymn in 1772, was a slave trader for a long time. In 1748, when he almost died in a shipwreck off the coast of Sierra Leone, he started his path to becoming a clergyman and to accepting the Christian faith, only to go right back into slave trading. It took him 40 years from that shipwreck to publicly denounce slavery, which was formally abolished in Great Britain in 1807.
I approached Sekou Andrews and asked him to write a poem based on “Amazing Grace” that focused on the fact that it took Newton 40 years to get to the place where he could say what he did was wrong. Bravery lies in the now. Sekou’s entire composition is written in the now. The whole idea of the piece is to challenge you to understand that what makes it amazing now is to recognize its past. And to say “I know this is wrong” in the now and to have the bravery to change it in the now. The idea, as Sekou says, is not to destroy a song we love, it’s really to recognize the destruction in a song we love and to celebrate this as its new beginning.
This documentary is going to be streamed at the inaugural Rikers Island Music Festival in September. How did that partnership come to be, and what do you hope that individuals incarcerated there will take away from it?
Tommy Demenkoff, who’s in the film, is the director of arts education at the New York City Department of Correction. When the film was done, he was so blown away by the impact of the segment about Project: Music Heals Us that he said, “I want to make an entire music festival inside the prison. Would you consider letting the film be streamed privately inside the Rikers Island facility to 6,000 incarcerated inmates?” I said to him, “We’re completely in.”
The thing about music is that it has no boundaries, and it has no barriers. And for them to want to make this the centerpiece of the festival is really an honor. Because in those spaces, that’s where I want you to find the music inside of you. As Francesco says, “Music belongs to all of us,” and it’s true. That’s not a freedom that you can take away from anybody. It’s just in our DNA.
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