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(Buy Musician at Amazon. Visit the WORK series website to see the film’s trailer.)

It’s hard enough getting by as a full-time musician in any genre these days, but try doing it when you’re an experimental, improvisational jazz artist. In many ways, Chicago’s Ken Vandermark is succeeding, but it isn’t easy. Touring small clubs and establishments two-thirds of the year, struggling to pay the bills, spending the rest of his free time writing and composing music even he admits is incredibly demanding, Vandermark’s life is a sobering lesson in commitment and dedication. For those out there who think being a musician is an exciting job, Daniel Kraus’s Musician is here to tell you otherwise.

The second installment in Kraus’s Frederick Wiseman-esque WORK Series is another matter-of-fact document of an American worker (the first was Sheriff) that shows, with subtle grace, the day-to-day realities of an individual trudging through their chosen vocation. Kraus is shooting each film in his series using a similar stripped-down approach (no voice-overs, no scores, nothing fancy), but when it comes to Vandermark, this style is especially appropriate. A recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant in 1999, Vandermark lives his life with a work hard, work harder attitude that leaves him little time to relax. And when he’s relaxing, it’s clear that his brain is still occupied. For Vandermark, making music isn’t just a job. It’s everything.

For many viewers, Kraus’s decision to give as much screen time to the mundane duties of Vandermark’s profession—answering phone calls, booking shows, transporting equipment—will feel like a letdown. But with the WORK series, Kraus isn’t out to make the broad, lazy point that all jobs suck. He simply wants to document each vocation as honestly as possible, without manipulating the footage to make things seem better or worse than they really are. To that end, in Musician, he shows us Vandermark in his element, performing his sonic assaults to appreciative viewers in various cities all across the world, and while the crowds are undoubtedly small, the response is passionate. He doesn’t show us too much on-stage footage, for that, too, would be dishonest. A day is twenty-four hours long. A set is only one or two.

Kraus ends Musician on an ambiguously high note, with Vandermark playing an electrifying saxophone solo. As if reflecting the solitude of this lonely artist, Kraus slowly zooms out his camera, until Vandermark has become smaller and smaller. But the performance remains electrifying, and when the last note is played, he awakens from his furious state and acknowledges his audience, who reward him with a standing ovation. This worker has done his job.

— Michael Tully

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Michael Tully is an award-winning writer/director whose films have garnered widespread critical acclaim, his projects having premiered at some of the most renowned film festivals across the globe. He is also the former (and founding) editor of this site. In 2006, Michael's first feature, COCAINE ANGEL, chronicling a tragic week in the life of a young drug addict, world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The film immediately solidified the director as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s "25 New Faces of Independent Film,” a reputation that was reinforced a year later when his follow-up feature, SILVER JEW, a documentary capturing the late David Berman's rare musical performances in Tel Aviv, world-premiered at SXSW and landed distribution with cult indie-music label Drag City. In 2011, Michael wrote, directed, and starred in his third feature, SEPTIEN, which debuted at the 27th annual Sundance Film Festival before being acquired by IFC Films' Sundance Selects banner. A few years later, in 2014, Michael returned to Sundance with the world premiere of his fourth feature, PING PONG SUMMER, an ‘80s set coming-of-age tale that was quickly picked up for theatrical distribution by Gravitas Ventures. In 2018, Michael wrote and directed the dread-inducing genre film DON'T LEAVE HOME, which has been described as "Get Out with Catholic guilt in the Irish countryside" (IndieWire). The film premiered at SXSW and was subsequently acquired by Cranked Up Films and Shudder.

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