I was pleasantly surprised by this CBC documentary of just under an hour, about child guitar prodigy Danny Sveinson. (I believe he is eleven years old at the start, and turns twelve during the film.) Based on the subject matter and the fact that it aired on a conventional TV network, my expectation was that it would be a very by-the-book, uncontroversial, laudatory, quite possibly dull, documentary, maybe even something that functioned primarily as promotion for his potential later appearances on the network.
Instead it’s quite an engaging treatment of the psychology and the conflict and the ups and downs of putting together a band and creating a music career for someone that young.
Of course you never know how much the material was manipulated through editing to make it a more compelling story. My response to the film assumes that it’s not spun like that, that what we’re seeing is indeed representative of the whole story, but at another level I’m always aware that that may not be the case.
My first reaction to Danny was just how impressive he is on multiple levels. He seems very good on the guitar, but I’m not an expert on that kind of thing so I’m partly going by how others in the film speak of him. But I was struck by his poise and stage presence at that age. He seems very much in his element performing. He also seems like a bright, together kid when we see him interacting with his family or hear him speak in other contexts.
He is managed by his father, who has suspended his career to devote himself full time to the task. The father is admirably humble about this and admits he’s trying to learn as he goes along as best he can. The mother is maybe a little less gung ho about pushing for the big time, but except for expressing mild disapproval here or there, she mostly lets her husband and son do what they’re going to do.
A key early decision by the father is to forego the “boy band” option and put together a band of young adults (about 19-33 I believe) for Danny.
Initially I agreed with that. If he’s an adult talent, he should be performing with adults. I liked, for instance, the feel of the scenes in the movie where he was invited up on stage to play with prominent established Canadian bands. Rather than the band members and audience treating him as a novelty, they seemed to respect his talent and treat him as an equal.
Which for one thing made me happy for him–what an awesome moment it must be as a twelve year old to experience something like that.
And when the band is formed, Danny is shown asserting himself as at least an equal with them, and to some extent as the leader, as he goes over how he wants them to play certain things, how he wants certain lines he’s written sung, etc. Whatever initial “Hey wait, he’s just a kid!” reactions the band members might have had evidently fade away as soon as they start working with him.
It’s like the novelty wears off and they just judge him on his talent and professionalism like they would anyone else, in a sense forgetting he’s kid, in the same way someone in that situation’s being a dwarf or a woman or a different race or whatever might fade in significance as people focus on their talents.
I felt that insisting he only play with kids his own age would hold him back, would limit his audience to the types of preteen girls who fawn over boy bands, and make it unlikely he’d be appreciated by the adult music world.
But it turns out his father and I were very much in the minority on this point. Agents and others in the music industry interviewed for the film are close to unanimous that putting him with a band full of adults is a bad idea, both for his development as a person and commercially. Their advice is either to not “go pro” now at all and just let him be a kid and play music in his garage with friends if he wants and then revisit the matter when he’s sixteen or eighteen or whatever, or to put together a boy band and market it the conventional way such bands are marketed.
Then as the film develops, I started to share their doubts that the adult band idea is the best option. Though Danny initially holds his own with the adults, as time goes on he seems to withdraw more and more. He still mostly looks comfortable on stage, but there’s now a vague air of dissatisfaction about him. When he does speak it’s as often as not to issue a brief complaint about something.
He clashes mildly with his father here and there. And he clearly has a strained relationship with the lead singer of the band.
Therein lies one of the problems. In a sense the band is about Danny; it’s to showcase him and his talent as a guitarist. But evidently he doesn’t sing well, and they know a guitar band playing all instrumentals isn’t a promising route to take, so one of the adult band members they bring in is a lead singer.
I really think if Danny were the lead singer as well as the lead guitarist, if they hadn’t had to go out and find someone to be the Robert Plant to his Jimmy Page, the dynamics would have been very different.
But the lead singer is typically the face of a band, perceived to some extent as the leader. So the lead singer they choose naturally wants some say over what he’s singing and the direction of the band. Which Danny doesn’t like. For instance, there’s understandably going to be some tension over the song lyrics. What makes sense from a twelve year old’s perspective might be ridiculous coming from the mouth of a grown man. So Danny writes songs that speak to his experiences, and then the lead singer wants to modify them into something more adult in nature, and nobody ends up happy.
As things deteriorate, there’s a telling interview scene where the father prefaces some pronouncement with “And I believe I speak for Danny here as well,” and you realize Danny’s opportunities to speak for himself have become more and more restricted.
Then again, that’s the kind of thing that could be manipulated by the filmmakers. I’m sure they chose to include those remarks by the father precisely to show to what extent the father was taking over and manifesting control freak tendencies. But if we’re not hearing from Danny, presumably that’s as much an artistic decision by the filmmakers as anything else. Why couldn’t they interview him during these weeks and months and include as many or more comments from him in the movie as from the father or anyone else? Is he really going into a shell and losing control and interest in his band as much as the movie depicts, or was a decision made to edit things to fit that theme?
Another comment I would make is that–though some viewers I’m sure would see this differently (and I wonder if the filmmakers themselves maybe intend people to see this differently)–to me no one is a villain in this movie. There are moments you can pick out where the father comes across like the stereotypical stage parent seeking glory (or just profit) through his child, but on the whole I don’t think it would be fair to pigeonhole him that way. Similarly, there are moments the lead singer maybe seems egotistical and difficult, but I don’t see him as a bad guy either.
Both of them are flawed, and I’m sure they both say things or make decisions that can be criticized. But to me this isn’t a movie about big bad adults exploiting Danny or ruining his childhood. It’s a story of imperfect, reasonably well-motivated people doing the best they can in a highly unusual set of circumstances.
But really it probably is too much too fast for Danny. Late in the film we see him a lot more interested in playing with his lizard and talking about reptiles than addressing questions about the band and his music, and it’s clear there’s still a lot of little boy in him. So my thought is they weren’t wrong to give this a shot, but now it’s time to pull back until Danny himself is unsatisfied and is impatient to get back out there, whether that’s in a year or ten years. Or never because he decides to do something else with his life.
There’s a note at the end of the film that they have indeed disbanded the band and are now putting together a band for him of kids around his age. Maybe that’ll be an improvement, but I’d still lean toward the option of shutting things down completely for at least a little while so they can have a chance to absorb and learn from what they’ve experienced, and he can spend at least a little time away from the pressure of being the star of a band, whether of twelve year olds or thirty year olds.
This is a solid, thought-provoking documentary. I prefer it to Heavy Metal Jr., another recent short film documentary about child musicians. The latter film had a bit of a mocking attitude toward its subjects that I wasn’t fully comfortable with. They played the “look at the little kids doing grown up stuff” angle more for laughs. Whereas in this film, Danny is treated not unlike, say, a piano prodigy winning classical music competitions as a twelve year old. I like that respectful approach better.