Michael Lawrence’s new documentary, Bach and Friends, is a two-hour love letter to the Baroque master featuring commentary and performances by Joshua Bell, Béla Fleck, Hilary Hahn, Bobby McFerrin, Edgar Meyer, and the Emerson String Quartet, among other musicians and historians. The film attempts to answer the single question, “Why is Bach great?” To formulate a response, Lawrence begins to examine Bach from the perspectives of improvisation, science technology, electronics and gaming, mathematics, biography, and performance technique.
Thirty minutes in, however, the film loses focus during a discussion of brain activity during improvisation—material for an excellent PBS science feature—and becomes a praise-off as commentators offer up one superlative after another so that the film’s central inquiry becomes, “Bach is great, isn’t he?” Though Lawrence’s point of the versatility of Bach’s music includes an engaging performance by Robert Tiso of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor on glass harp, the point is over-emphasized in relation to the material oddly omitted; the film barely touches the depth of musical structure or impeccable order that would speak far more poignantly to the composer’s genius.
Ironically, the essence of Bach’s music is articulated best by those musicians who use the fewest words. Mandolinist Chris Thile and cellist Matt Haimovitz speak about the transcendent joy of performing Bach in nontraditional spaces. Bassist Edgar Meyer marvels at the technical challenges for the musician while giving a masterful performance of the Prelude to Suite No. 2 for Unaccompanied Cello. Banjoist Béla Fleck, in his soft-spoken manner, summarizes the statements by half a dozen previous commentators: “I just know that I like it.”
The film’s final sequence is its best, featuring The Art of Fugue. Here, finally, Lawrence artfully fuses the life and music of Bach in the performance by the Emerson Quartet. The foursome “disappear[s] into the music,” in the earlier words of Bobby McFerrin. One wishes the documentary did the same. Not surprisingly, the star of the film remains the music; the performances are a delight, and a second disc of uninterrupted performance footage is included with the DVD.