Chops was one of those films I slipped into while killing time before the Spider-Man 3 press screening. And though we're looking at two completely different movies, the two do share similar themes. In fact, both deal with young kids who possess extraordinary talents and, in the most difficult, nerve-racking situations, they must utilize those talents to the best of their ability. In the case of Chops, the film follows a group of high school kids as they pursue their goal to win the most prestigious jazz band competition in the country: the annual Essentially Ellington Festival in New York City. In the vein of films like Mad Hot Ballroom, pic documents their journey; from the first day they played together as a band to overcoming their fears as they travel to New York to compete against the best of the best.
Roughly 900 high schools apply to compete in the festival, yet when it's all said and done only fifteen bands are chosen. The great thing about the Essentially Ellington Festival is that it's not just about determining which of these fifteen bands is the best; it's more about surrounding these kids with professional talent who then help them explore their craft. Folks like Wynton Marsalis and Ron Carter meet with the kids, answer their questions and attempt to show them that it's not about playing the music, it's about feeling it and being creative. When we're first introduced to the kids of this Jacksonville high school, they're strangers. Some are arriving from junior high school, while others are band veterans -- kids who've experienced Essentially Ellington, but never had what it takes to win. Towards the end of the film, as the competition heats up, we watch as these one-time strangers slowly become a family -- one tight-knit voice so devoted to the art of jazz that it's hard not to shed tears when the final outcome is revealed.
Of course, those who enjoy jazz will get the most out of the film. Unlike Mad Hot Ballroom, we never really learn much about the students' personal lives. The interviews with family members are brief, and though you can tell that some families are more well-off than others, that barrier between those who have and those who do not is never fully exposed. Also -- and this is not necessarily a bad thing -- we only really follow one school. At one point, first-time director Bruce Broder attempts to showcase two other schools from Seattle. The two he chose were considered the best in the country, and had won Essentially Ellington multiple times. But by the time we arrive in Seattle, we've already invested everything in that little band from Jacksonville. The time spent on the other side of the country is nothing but filler; we meet kids and teachers for only a few brief moments. When they arrive in New York to compete against the Jacksonville band, we know the names of their schools but barely remember faces. Personally, I would've enjoyed the film more had that little Seattle section been removed. It's more enjoyable watching the Jacksonville kids talk about these other mysterious, indestructible jazz phantom bands than it was to meet them for three minutes, and then move on.
That said, it's not so much about who these kids are outside of school; part of the fun rests in learning who they are through their music. With so many stories of drugs infecting our high schools, it's refreshing to find a group of students addicted to learning and bettering themselves. One of the most enjoyable aspects of jazz, to me, is the improvisation. When Chops is at its best, we watch as these lanky, quiet teenagers -- kids who never have much to say about anything -- stand up in front of a packed theater for a sax/clarinet solo and improvise their asses off. For an audience member, it's the strangest feeling -- on one hand, you want to cry out in joy for the kid who was able to defeat his demons and entertain alongside the best of them, while at the same time you can't help but become consumed by the music, losing yourself in the moment. It's a fantastic experience, and although you don't know these kids from a hole in the wall, you're overcome by this overwhelming feeling to hug each one. Broder might not have created the most fluid documentary (everything up until the point when the kids are accepted into the festival felt very home video-ish; almost like he decided to make a documentary halfway through the actual film), but he certainly managed to capture the most important moments. And when there's not a dry eye in the house as the end credits roll, then I have to consider that a job well done.