By Kim Voynar (reprinted from 03/17/08 -- SXSW Film Festival)
Quick, raise your hand if you're a Harry Potter fan. Yeah, there are a lot of boy wizard fans, which is probably why a documentary about Harry Potter fandom sounded like a great idea. We Are Wizards, though, is not so much a documentary about Harry Potter fandom in general, as it is about the "Wizard Rock" bands that have grown up around the franchise, and a couple of the bigger Harry Potter fan sites.
The film introduces us to some of these Wizard Rock bands, including Harry and the Potters (brothers Paul and Joe DeGeorge), Draco and the Malfoys (brothers Brian Ross and Bradley Mehlenbacher), and The Hungarian Horntails, headed up by seven-year old punk rocker Darius and his four-year-old brother, Holden, who write songs they call "dragon rock."
We also meet Melissa Anelli, founder of fan site The Leaky Cauldron ("the most trusted name in Potter"), one of my own fave Harry Potter sites, and Heather Lawver, who formerly ran website The Daily Prophet and spearheaded a Harry Potter boycott against Warner Brothers when they got all heavy-handed cracking down on Harry Potter fan sites. The Leaky Cauldron does some excellent "Pottercasts" where they discuss the book series and films, and Anelli has become a celeb of her own right in the world of Potter fans; Lawver, who was just a teenager battling a serious illness when she took on Warner Brothers over the fan issue, and her story is quite inspiring.
The parts of the film that focus on the bands are pretty interesting; I was particularly intrigued by the Horntails. The boys' parents are artists and musicians who make musical instruments, cameras and the like freely available to their kids, and that atmosphere of creative openness has clearly led to fostering a spirit of independence and creativity you don't often see in kids that age. Their music may not be what some would call well-developed or particularly artsy at this point, but hey, they're little kids, writing songs and performing on stage, and it will be fascinating to see if the brothers continue to play music as they mature, and what impact their early experiments with dragon rock will have on their musical development.
Also profiled is cartoonist Brad Neely, who created Wizard People, Dear Readers, an "unauthorized retelling" of the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. Neely's retelling (parts of which are really funny) are downloadable on his website. You download the files, save them onto two CDs, and then play the film with the sound muted, while simultaneously playing the retelling. He follows along with the film from start-to-finish, and the overall effect is pretty hilarious, though I'd imagine Warner Brothers is less amused. Neely recalls being asked to do a screening of the retelling at a film fest, but pulling out due to fears that Warner would sue him. The retelling does have some moderately strong language, as does Neely himself during his interview segments on We Are Wizards, so if you have kids you think might be interested in the film, you'll want to keep that in mind.
The greatest weakness with We Are Wizards is that there's just not much of an arc to the film at all. Josh Koury, the director, presents the information about the bands and the fan sites largely as just chunks of information, with not much in the way of linearity or conclusion. Thus, the film overall left me feeling I'd been presented with "here are some wizard rock bands, and here's the founders of some websites" and so on, without a lot of clarlty around what what exactly Koury wanted to say about fandom as a filmmaker. Yes, Harry Potter is cool. Yes, the series has many millions of fans, and yes, quite a few of them are into the bands and read the websites. And ...?
It would have strengthened the film more, especially for the audience for which the film is presumably intended, for Koury to have cut about 2/3 of the footage with Neely out, making that a smaller focus, and used that time and mental space for talking about Harry Potter fans in general, using the idea of fandom as a thread with which to weave all these interesting pieces together into a more coherent whole. As it stands, even my 11-year-old daughter, who is a huge Harry Potter fan, lost interest about a third of the way into the film, because she thought it was going to be more about fans and fandom, and all the talk of wizard bands and unauthorized recordings just wasn't that interesting to her. Granted, 11-year-olds aren't necessarily Koury's target here, but she's a very savvy 11-year-old who routinely sits through a lot of documentaries with me and enjoys both watching and discussing them, and she's a big fan of the boy wizard, so take that for what it's worth.
Nonetheless, fans of the wizard rock bands in particular will find much to like here, between the footage of the bands' shows and their interviews. I'd recommend the film also for parents who are into unschooling (a particular philosophy of homeschooling) for the interviews with the parents of the Horntails; while I didn't hear them use the term "unschooling," their philosophy around child-rearing, and the way in which they support their kids' creativity and independence, will resonate for those families who share that view of parenting.
(Note: We Are Wizards opens this weekend in New York.)