Thursday, April 19, 2012

Downtown Express: Love for the Subway Musicians

For some musicians, music is a rigid set of chords, rhythms, and tempos that provide structure to life. Others see it as an open form for free expression. One Russian immigrant violin wunderkind will completely reevaluate how he relates to music in David Grubin’s Downtown Express (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Sasha Resnick has played the violin since he was three. A successful Julliard recital will secure his visa and lead to the brilliant performance career his father has long groomed him for. However, as his recital fast approaches, Sasha’s head is turned by the indie band Downtown Express, or to be more accurate, by their lead singer Ramona. This frustrates both his former dissident stage-father Vadim and his kind of hot faculty advisor, Marie, just as they start to warm to each other.

In many ways, Express is a love letter to New York street musicians, which is very cool. In fact, the film hinges on the open auditions for the MTA’s Music Under New York program. It also fully develops Vadim and Marie’s backstories, notably explaining how his struggles under Soviet oppression shaped his approach to music.

As the senior Resnick and the Julliard instructor, Broadway actor Michael Cumpsty (whose prestigious credits include Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and Democracy) and Caroyln McCormick (probably best known for Spenser for Hire) develop a nice and easy chemistry, totally soft-selling viewers on their unlikely budding relationship. Perhaps they are actually too good, because the older generation clearly outshines the young publicity-friendly leads.

In truth, four-time Grammy nominee Philippe Quint is not bad as young Resnick and he is definitely a force to be reckoned with on the violin. Yet, it is hard to get his attraction indie singer-songwriter Nellie McKay’ Ramona or her band. Frankly, the most distinctive music in Express is the Mozart and Tchaikovsky the Resnicks play rather than her band’s originals, mostly sounding like pseudo-Dave Matthews Band crossed with Hooked on Classics.

Grubin makes the most of his New York setting, while suggesting the continuing influence of the characters’ Russian roots. Though he keeps the tone light, there is a realistic messiness to the film that forces Resnick to make serious choices. Yes, maturity is a good thing. Moderately recommended for Quint’s fans and older viewers who want to see middle-aged supporting characters portrayed in an attractive light, Downtown Express opens tomorrow (4/20) in New York at the Quad Cinema.