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The tale of a possessed guitar player dueling with the devil to reclaim his soul is well known among American blues fans.  Robert Johnson, the Mississippi blues legend, is at the center of many such stories.  Crossroads, the fine indie movie, with Ry Cooder contributing, did a variation with a Julliard trained kid picking up the challenge and a guitar duel [both sides by Steve Vail] for the ages.  But when I sat down to watch The Overture, (2004) from Thailand I only thought to be doing a little homework for an upcoming trip.  Little did I expect to enter into the same duel-with-the-devil story or suppose that a vibraphone (a ranard-ek in Thai) could induce the same heart-racing response as a guitar face-off.  Based on the life of an actual Thai musician, Luang Pradit Pairoh (1881-1954), the movie shows that musical genius knows no boundaries and we mere mortals can recognize it when it comes along.

The story starts out with a wide eyed little boy chasing a butterfly which finally lands on the keyboards of his big brother’s ranard-ek, an instrument of 21 tuned wooden keys strung together and hung from a boat shaped resonator.  It is played with two mallets, much like a xylophone or vibes of modern jazz, and with varying and competing techniques, as you will learn.   Sorn [Anuchit Sapanpong] grows in quick film-wipes and is pulled toward the instrument which his brother and father play.  It’s a tough business though, in Thailand of the 1890s.  Competitions to play at the court are taken seriously and elder brother is murdered to clear the way for rivals.  The father prohibits the young Sorn from playing, until his persistence and obvious talent persuade him that fate should be his guide.

It’s a little too simple to this point, but don’t turn away.  As young Sorn begins to play for real you understand the talent and the physical attributes needed.  At the beginning of the sweetest romance you have ever seen in movie-land — stolen glances are as hot as it gets– a young woman worries about him carrying packages for her because ‘it might hurt his wrists.’

At some point the film begins to cut back and forth between Sorn the young man, in the 1890s or so, when the King is the center of political and cultural gravity, and Sorn the older man [Adul Dulyarat], in the 1940s or 50s, when the military and the “leader” are determined to stamp out tradition and backwardness to force Thailand into a more modern and powerful future.  The dual track lifts the film above a simple, if fabulous, story of music and the devil.  Tradition vs modernity, popular vs authoritarian culture, resistance and war make a more interesting set of propositions to consider even if it is confusing at times for the non-Thai to sort out.  The Japanese are mentioned in passing though it is not clear whether they are the hand behind the “leader,”  of if they have come and gone and the modernizing drive is from a homegrown dictator.  Thais would likely be able to read in knowledge of the Japanese occupation during WW II and ‘Phibun’ the Thai leader who cooperated with them.

Confusion about the details of this history don’t impede understanding the several themes or enjoying the movie.  Tradition vs modernity is a struggle that goes on around the world, even when the military is not one of the players. We may not be sure who is hurling bombs at our musicians, but the danger is clear.  The arc of the old man’s life which began as a champion of popular music –at its highest levels– will end there, defending ‘the roots of the tree,’ as he says to one inquisitorial officer.   The closing struggle against a devil of a different sort adds a second, social-political layer to the personal duel itself in the court of the king.  As the two extremely talented players face off, the very handsome young Sorn, dressed in white, and the glowering Kun In [Narongrit Tosa-nga] dressed in black, the camera sets the tension, moving from face to face and mallet to mallet, the keys responding at incredible speeds.  I guarantee, when the King gushes in admiration at the end, so will you.

When the winner apologizes to the loser for any hurt feelings you will know you are in a world not presently inhabited.  More might have been done had it been aimed at international audiences but The Overture [a better translation might be The Prelude…as boy is to man] is a very lovely movie.  Besides the music you will see enough of Thai landscape, interiors, relations between friends to make you want to go, or if already going to be alert in ways you might not have been.

It’s available on Netflix, or as an Amazon rental.  Here’s a sample of the competition on YouTube.