Tribeca Exclusive: Playing for Change

If you’re a fan of world music, then you’re in for a treat with Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls’ Playing for Change: Peace Through Music, a film that premiered at the 7th Annual Tribeca Film Festival. It isn’t really a documentary as much as a global concert film, recorded on the streets of New Orleans, Barcelona, South Africa, Tibet and elsewhere, as the filmmakers (Johnson being an award-winning engineer and producer) traveled across the globe, finding musicians to record tracks on versions of “Stand By Me” and Bob Marley’s “One World” without any of the individual musicians ever having met each other.

The purpose of the project which led to the formation of a foundation to help impoverished people in the areas visited is to show how music brings people together regardless of their cultural differences. The project had the duo recording and filming these diverse musicians guerilla style, then editing the film together to create an amazing never-before-seen “music video” of these amazing musicians playing together on these inspirational songs, as well as playing their own music.

Playing for Change found a great spokesperson and co-producer in filmmaker Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin’ Aces), a lifelong music enthusiast who immediately understood what they were trying to do and the power of their world-wide recordings and why the film would go over well with fans of music and movies.

Just a few days after the premiere, ComingSoon.net sat down with Johnson and Carnahan to talk about the movie, and we also got a chance to ask Carnahan about progress on his own next project, the Columbian drug biopic Killing Pablo.

ComingSoon.net: I know you did another movie with a similar premise a few years ago, but Joe wasn’t involved with that?
Mark Johnson: No, that was about seven years ago.

CS: So how did you get involved with this? Did you see their first movie?
Joe Carnahan: No, you know what? I was introduced to Mark through a buddy of mine named Raan Williams, and Raan called me and said that he’d spoken to Mark and would I like to come over and look at this thing they’re working on? They’d love to hear my feedback, and I couldn’t think of what possible good I could do these guys, because I didn’t have an inkling of what it was. I don’t know if they were fans of “Narc” or they were fans in general, but he said there’s a filmmaker available, so I said, “Sure, let me come over.” Mark lives in Venice and we were going over there and those guys were plying me with volumes of wine, but I saw essentially what is the opening song of the film, which is “Stand By Me” and then I saw “One Love” and I was just absolutely blown away. All that stuff cut together and I remember them turning it off and Mark saying, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “I just think it’s gold.” For me to have that kind of visceral response, you know it’s great, because it supersedes the cerebral part of your brain and goes right to your gut and your heart and you’re going “Wow!” That’s how it felt to see that. I remember peppering him with questions afterwards. “Did these musicians know one another? How the hell did you do this?”

There are two things about Mark that are remarkable. His ability as an engineer and a soundguy to almost create what you do in a fiction film through mis-en-scene and cutting and so on, understanding dramatically where the moments are when you expound a song. I’ve seen the film now 20 times and every time I see it, I’m consistently blown away by how Mark builds these songs and why it becomes so great. You see “One Love” when that choir comes in and then to close with that choir. Listen, I’m a tough guy and I’m not easy to move and I don’t emote necessarily at the drop of a hat, but that always gets to me. It was the culmination of those sorts of things, and I just told them once I saw that footage, that anything they needed me to do, I would hard charge whatever they wanted and make any phone call, extort people, whatever you need.

CS: As an engineer in New York, you’re always going into the subway and seeing these amazing groups or musicians and thinking “I wish I could get them into the studio and record them.” Was this always intended as a movie or was it more about getting these musicians to record together?
Johnson: For me, it was all about really just trying to come up with some way of making these songs around the world, making these songs of 30 to 35 people who never met from all different parts of the world singing together on the same track. For me, that was the driving force because I knew the impact that would have. Then when you see that, you want to learn about the musicians, so that’s where the idea came to interview them, have them play their own music, to try to get some kind of connection between all the musicians, so once you see the songs, then you want to learn about the characters, and the film kind of stemmed out of that.

CS: I remember you started with “Stand By Me” sung by Roger Ridley in Santa Monica, but what was the scouting process like once you got to these other countries? Did you film anyone who came up and then decide later what to use and keep?
Johnson: Well, we ended up filming and recording over 100 musicians around the world, some of them are choirs and Native Indians, but the idea, kind of just thinking in my mind, what would be unique instruments to juxtapose against each other that had never been heard before: a talking drum and a tabla, they’re very similar but they never really come together, or a sitar and a dobro, very similar but how often do you hear them play together? The idea was to go to places that would have some sort of instruments that they could add to the spectrum of the global music that we were trying to find.

CS: What about recording these musicians on the street, because obviously the outdoors is not the best place to do a recording, but you can’t even tell. Why did you want to record them like that and did you find everyone on the streets of the places you went?
Johnson: Most of them we either found on the street or we’d just find them… like the guys from the Congo were playing at a club and they just blew our minds. Their music was just some of the most powerful stuff on earth, and we said, “Okay, so tomorrow we’re going outside.” Roger Ridley, where it all started in Santa Monica, in the street. I just walked by him one day and heard him singing “Stand By Me.” I was probably three blocks away with that voice, and I just ran over there. “What is this?” A lot of times it was simply being in the moment, being lucky, but it was also sort of word-of-mouth that would pass around. When we’d get to a location, people would always want to let all the other musicians know about it, then we’d be able to create a filter process to sort of go, “Okay, let me hear you play some music and see where we can fit this in.” We had four songs around the world going, so there was always somewhere to fit somebody in, and there were some instruments we didn’t use, but the majority of stuff got used.

CS: And you just gave them one pass of the song to record and then you went through and edited it later?
Johnson: Exactly.

CS: There are two elements at work, the visuals and the music, and getting the two things must have been tough since arranging a song and editing movie are two different things.
Johnson: Right, but for me, it was the ultimate way to do it, because when you buy an album, you don’t get to see it, and sometimes, there’s these moments that happen that you see because you’re an engineer and I see it because I’m an engineer, but the world doesn’t see it. So we get to go home and we know every time that we hear that record, some sort of moment that happened, and I think we just wanted to say, “With music and with film together, we can create something that would be more powerful to the senses than anything else we can do with music.”

CS: Joe, you’re known for your love of music and the amazing soundtracks you put with your films that really drives the visuals. Where were they with the film when you first got involved? Was there a lot more work to be done since they already had gone around the world recording everyone?
Carnahan: To Mark and Jonathan’s credit, they took a very ethnographic approach to the film itself, and they really wanted the musicians to tell the story, so when I was talking to the guys, they would tell me this amazing stories about going to these different places and what happened. They told me about Roger and I said, “Guys, my big thing is that this has gotta be in the movie.” Mark’s probably the most reluctant narrator in the history of film narrators but he’s great because he’s got such great energy and the camera loves him. I recruited Mauro Fiore, who’s my DP, and got Mark and Jonathan over to the house one day and said, “Let’s just sit down and I’ll just interview you. Let’s talk about some of this stuff.” What I was looking for is the narrative through and trying to find the thread that would be able to kind of wrap it all up in a way that it felt like the journey that they took would somehow be cyclical. That it could somehow return to Roger, so that last bit about Roger, which when I heard about it, it broke my heart. When you hear that and Mark tells that story, it’s just such a great… it sounds rather callous because this is a person’s life, and yet, the tragedy and the beauty of real life. I was so moved by the story about his wife that I remember when Mark first told it to me, after the fact I was telling it to my girlfriend and I got all choked up and felt that really gets to me, that idea that this happened to him. It just became necessary, I thought, to go and kind of install that stuff, and then it was Mark, Jonny, Kevin and I getting in a room… me coming at it from not having any experience with the concert film and these guys coming at it, not necessarily having experience with the narrative side of things. It was a good kind of mix ‘n’ match at that point.

CS: When you went to these different places, was a lot of it for the geographical instrumentation or did you just think “Oh, we have to go to Tibet…”? You must have some sort of gameplan when you went to these places, because you can’t just fly to Tibet…
Carnahan: Which is pretty much what they did. (laughs)
Johnson: There was a lot of spontaneously jetting off to some far-off place and see what happens, but the main thing was, and I can’t stress it enough, was about showing that it wasn’t like we wanted 37 of the same people in 15 countries playing together. We wanted all different races, gender, economics, politics, religion, we wanted everybody we could think of that could juxtapose each other to show that we can overcome all our differences through music. Look at them. If they can all sing songs together then that’s a good start. Maybe we don’t have to have all these struggles with each other. We tried to pick enough places around the world that were different from each other, so Tibetan monasteries… when we found the Exile Brothers, which was just a dream for us, because I didn’t know if I was going to find any Asian instrument that was going to be at all appealing to the Western ear. Then I find these guys who are like the Crosby, Stills and Nash of Tibet, and they’d been given two albums from Westerners in their little village: Howlin’ Wolf and “Dark Side of the Moon.” Those are the two that they were given, so when we found out, we thought, “This is going to be unbelievable because now they’re playing Western melodies and this is going to be a way to take this culture that seems so far off and exotic.” (Some might think) why would I want to listen to Tibetan music if I’m living in America, but now you see that the connection is so similar.
Carnahan: And that’s what’s great about when you see the veena player…
Johnson: The veena player, Rajhesh Vaidhya.
Carnahan: You see him play and it’s like watching Hendrix jam, and it’s a total crowd-pleaser and that’s what’s so great because there’s still this Western sensibility and you basically showing people, “Look, it’s not that different.” I think that the message is, the commonality in the film is that these people from these completely diverse and divergent cultures say the same things and have the same feelings. This is Tibet, this is South Africa, this is all over the marble. People have that same sense of communion and that same sense of coming together and music has that core power that just cuts through the bullsh*t, cuts through the mundane and the banal and all that stuff and it goes right to the heart of the best parts of the human spirit. That’s what I think the movie does.

CS: How did you work with the different musicians in terms of communicating what you wanted, considering that many of them had never done any sort of recording before?
Johnson: Personally for me, my experience when I started working at the Hit Factory, I ended up recording records for Big E. Smalls and for Paul Simon within the same two months, so to go from those far-off worlds of music, you learn to understand the way to inspire different people that look at the world and look at music so differently, and I kind of used that as my guide when I would travel. How can I make these people feel the most comfortable about what we’re doing? We had to go in with an open mind and we had to go in with inspiration and some great microphones, those three things together, plus an iPod with wherever we were at with “Stand by Me” at the time. That broke all the ice as we would go. We’d play the video stuff, and it’s amazing, just as a sidenote, how many people in the world know “One Love” and “Stand By Me.” I mean, in places where they don’t speak any English, they can still sing those songs or they translate them quickly to Zulu or Tibetan or whatever it is.
Carnahan: If you rewatch the Manu Chao portion in Spain, you can see Mark and at first, you think it’s just some drunk American with a wine bottle back there and you realize Mark has a microphone attached to the bottle and that’s what’s recording.
Johnson: Yeah, I duct taped an omni microphone to a wine bottle and then I would hold it up to whomever was playing.
Carnahan: People would say, “Mark’s in that, you see Mark in that shot,” and I’d go, “Nah, I just see some loser with a bottle of wine.”
Johnson: (laughs) At least you can give me the engineer due that we can give to each other that there’s a little red microphone out of that wine and I’m not just sitting there drinking and enjoying the moment. I’m actually recording the music.

CS: Also technically, you’re going to many of these places where they probably have no electricity. Do you have a computer set-up of some kind to record everything?
Johnson: Yeah, I used it all on Pro Tools and I had it all powered with car battery, and you can’t fly with car batteries, so in a lot of these places, like in Katmandu, you can’t even buy a charged car battery. You can take an empty battery to a place that says they’re going to charge it, go to film, and find out that they didn’t charge it.
Carnahan: That’s kind of scary thinking you’re out in the middle of nowhere and all you have is a car battery to power this thing up.
Johnson: Yeah, I had A, B and C plans all the way around. There’s a guy in one of the songs, “Don’t Worry,” where the guy is dancing with the donuts on his head playing the triangle over the water. I just put an iPod and he just played over the iPod with a lavelier mic.

CS: Did you just record them live and then fly them into the songs?
Johnson: Well, only that time did I fly things in. Most of the time, it was live right on the track overdubbing like we would in the studio.

CS: Did you do a lot more interview with the musicians that you might include down the road on a DVD?
Johnson: Yeah, there’s about 75 other performances that were of equal value to these. It’s just that we wanted to tell the story and we wanted to tell it in as quick and concise a format as possible. We just wanted to let the message speak and then people come to the website and there will be downloads available and interviews of all these other performances that are amazing, but just couldn’t fit in the movie.
Carnahan: Also some of the stories Mark and Jonathan will include.

CS: Yeah, I remember you told one story at the screening about the gangsters you met in South Africa.
Johnson: Yeah, they watched “Stand By Me” on the iPod and they said, “We got your back since you’re here for inspiration” in Suweto, the murder capitol of the world.

CS: You also have the Playing for Change Foundation, so was that something you had started before making the movie?
Johnson: No, right in the middle of the movie. The foundation started by just looking at the faces of the people we were working with and seeing how much compassion they had and how much desire and hope that when these Americans come through with these cameras and recording equipment and then suddenly they feel like this is a chance for them. We didn’t want to just leave them hanging, like, “Okay, thanks guys for playing on these songs. See you if we see you.” We know we’re not going back there for a vacation, so we were like “What can we do?” We asked the people what we could do to help them and in Guguletu South Africa, they needed a music school, the Tibetan refugees they needed new beds, blankets, toothpaste, toothbrush, picture of the Dalai Lama and enough food to eat for six months, so we’re giving all that to all the different communities that we’ve been working with to build a global family. One last thing about that you might find interesting is that we’re also installing camera equipment and recording equipment in the schools we’re building so that you can log into the website and you can watch the performances in the music schools you’re a part of. That way, there’s no longer this, “Oh, they’re so far away. How can I help them?” Now you can see what you’re doing and eventually, we’ll have Tibetan kids, playing with South African kids, Native Indians, Spanish kids, all connected through these music schools.

CS: Maybe one day they’ll all get a chance to meet, too.
Johnson: Oh, yeah, maybe we’ll do a concert.

CS: Joe, are you involved with the Foundation as well?
Carnahan: Listen, Mark and I have been talking about going to Tel Aviv and recording this Palestinian choir.
Johnson: The Heartbeat choir, we already got them together.

CS: How are they going to agree on what key to play in?
Carnahan: (laughs) We’re going to toss a coin.
Johnson: Actually, they’re singing over Bob Marley’s “War, No More Trouble” and we’ve already started it with musicians from Zimbabwe and the Congo, so it’s already all set-up with a click track and we’re going to do this in the same key and tempo of “Bob Marley: Live at the Rainbow” and they’re going to give me the original tracks so that Bob Marley will be singing live in the next film with Israeli and Palestinian kids at the same time.

CS: Have you guys had any issues getting the rights to the songs? Was it just a matter of showing them what you’d done so far?
Carnahan: It’s tough to contest the power of something like that. You’d have to be a real heel….
Johnson: Yeah, Chris Blackwell has been a big supporter of the project so he’s helping us out and when Sony, who own “Stand By Me”, when they saw what we had done with the thing, they had no problem letting us do this.

CS: Is there a record that’s also involve with this project?
Johnson: Oh, yeah, yeah, there’ll be many records.

CS: Oh, I didn’t see any mention of it in the movie.
Johnson: Yeah, yeah… we felt we should have.

CS: Joe, I read on your blog that you went to Bogota, Columbia to scout locations for “Killing Pablo.”
Carnahan: Yeah, I just brought back a bunch of Columbian music, too, but Mark got… should I tell him?
Johnson: Yeah, please do.
Carnahan: Mark got for “Pablo”… he’s been recording Los Lobos, their new album, and he got Los Lobos to redo “Pusher Man” by Curtis Mayfield all in Spanish for “Pablo.” I’m going to be listening for that very soon.

CS: That’s very cool that you already have some music lined-up for your next movie.
Carnahan: I know. Can you imagine? Being able to have that in advance of all the craziness would be pretty incredible.

CS: And you could probably go down there and get some musicians in Bogota involved in the project.
Johnson: Yeah, I’m just going to follow him around and…
Carnahan: Columbia would be great and it would be amazing to go down there.

CS: Do you know when you’re going to start shooting that?
Carnahan: The fall, we’re going. We’re setting our date. Christian Bale’s got a stop date on “Terminator,” we’re going right after that, so we’ll probably start prepping in mid-July, very excited.

CS: Have you been avoiding “Entourage” not to see all the things that happened with their Pablo Escobar movie?
Carnahan: You know what? I saw a little bit of it, because people would tell me about them, and I told Jeremy Piven that I’d deliberately not watch the episodes with the Pablo Escobar content, so he kind of tipped me to the ones to avoid.

CS: Yeah, you might want to avoid the Cannes one.
Carnahan: The Cannes one’s no good, huh? Yeah, yeah, I’ve been avoiding it.

Playing for Change: Peace Through Music has been playing at the 7th Annual Tribeca Film Festival in New York City and there’s one final screening on Friday, May 2 at 9pm at the AMC Village VII if you want to check it out. You can learn more about the movie, the musical project and the Playing for Change Foundation at the official site.

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