Hot Docs 2019: Our Review of ‘Pipe Dreams’

Hot Docs 2019: Our Review of ‘Pipe Dreams’

The pipe organ is one of the most powerful, yet elegant instruments in all of creation. It can at once be soothing and peaceful, and then quickly change gears and invoke the wrath of the Gods. Few instruments have that kind of range. Director Stacey Tenenbaum’s documentary Pipe Dreams reminds its audience of the sheer dramatic muscle that the pipe organ can produce.

The film follows five organ virtuosos from around the world (Canada, the U.S., Germany, New Zealand, and China) preparing to compete in the Canadian International Organ Competition at Montreal, Canada.

The level of musicianship on display in this documentary is borderline otherworldly. These men and women are not simply talented organists – they are perhaps some level of genius. Some of these subjects are relatively humble, while others are rather smug, which is off-putting. Still, the music presented in the film is nothing short of extraordinary, and fortunately, the sound mix is up to the task. Had the sound not been near perfect, this documentary wouldn’t work at all.

Really, the sound and music save this film, as its central story is not all that compelling. Of the five subjects, only two have interesting backstories. Yuan is a Chinese woman who learned as a child that her father would have preferred a son. Alcee is an African American man from Louisiana who grew up playing the organ in his father’s church. These were the two characters that I connected with most, and wanted to see succeed.

The film makes a number of mistakes, particularly shortchanging individuals that play a smaller part than perhaps they should, or highlighting subjects that don’t provide much payoff. Still, it’s a decent film with a remarkably strong soundtrack, and is indeed worth seeing, particularly for pipe organ enthusiasts.

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