Michael Zimmer and Nick Holle
"The Entertainers" takes us into the world of the Old-Time (Tyme?) Piano Playing Championships and the ragtime musicians who compete for the trophy of World's Best. We're introduced in media res to six different competitors waiting to hear the results of the first round, and the pressure is on. The movie then takes a step back and introduces us to the world that these people inhabit outside of the competition.
Or at least, it would like to. The six chosen competitors only discuss ragtime to the camera, showing us glimpses of their social and working lives, but failing to interact with anyone not in the world of ragtime. When one competitor mentions that he is dealing with bankruptcy, the camera zooms in tight, expecting an emotional moment.
Unfortunately, the characters in this movie don't exist outside of their obsessions, so the emotional punch falls flat.
Many of the best documentaries that follow quirky subcultures full of social misfits are at their best when they become immersed in how the participants live in the greater culture. Other movies such as "Trekkies" and "Crumb" always make sure not to make the movie about the object of obsession, but about the people looking for meaning in their lives or their search for others like them. When competitor Jim Boston talks frankly of his struggles with suicidal thoughts and how the competition is a major part in his decision to choose life, it's an intensely human moment. So it's a sad thing that the movie feels the need to devote more time to the less interesting nuts and bolts of ragtime. There is nothing hip about ragtime. Nothing. The drama of the competition isn't the same for viewers as it is for the participants.
But we as viewers are drawn to the human stories that motivate these people. Filmmakers Michael Zimmer and Nick Holle obviously care about their subjects, and the moments where the six are interacting with each other and the public are the best parts. There are some very good moments in this movie, but the filmmakers are best when they're a fly on the wall unnoticed by everyone.
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