Film Reviews

‘That Higher Level’: A Doc that Sings

Doc captures the passion and dedication of musicians in the National Youth Orchestra

Photo by Emily Cooper/NFB


That Higher Level
(Canada, 75 min.)
Dir. John Bolton

This one time, at band camp, the NFB made a documentary.

That Higher Level goes behind the scenes with the devoted flutists, tromboners, violinists, and other musicians in the National Youth Orchestra during the summer of 2017. Director John Bolton (Aim for the Roses) captures the passion and dedication of these students who commit themselves to the arts. The doc chronicles their intensive rehearsals and ambitious cross-country tour (which sees them travel nearly half the Earth’s circumference in distance) over two months. Focusing more on the collective voice the artists create, rather than the individuals who comprise the 100-odd person orchestra, Bolton conveys the collective experience of diverse young musicians who come together from various backgrounds and different regions of the country to be united by their shared love for music. It’s a doc that sings.

That Higher Level offers interviews with a few of the musicians from different sections of the orchestra, but each story, while unique, touches upon a factor that every member of the collective probably faces. John, a double bass player, tells Bolton about facing a turning point and changing paths during university. He reveals how he went to school to play football and intended to prioritize the sport over practicing on his deeply voiced strings. However, he says that the more he played, the more his passion for music swelled and ultimately overpowered the thrill of the football field—and the slim likelihood of ever making a professional career out of punting the pigskin. The pursuit of one passion requires commitment and dedication as That Higher Level illustrates through this story and others.

At the same time, Phoebe energetically relates her love for playing the harp and the joy of making friends with fellow musicians who are ultimately rivals for the limited number of jobs available for classical musicians. Even while playing together and dedicating their summers to the orchestra, the musicians grasp that the game is essentially survival of the fittest and that making a professional career in music gets harder with each wave of students flung out of graduation with arts degrees in a job market that isn’t kind to young people or creative types.

The mix of interviews and behind-the-scenes observation shows how Bolton has a strong grasp for musicality. This sixth sense evident from the rhythm and energy of That Higher Level — and especially obvious for anyone who’s seen his brilliant feature Aim for the Roses, a gonzo doc-musical about a daredevil and the cracked-out album he inspired. While That Higher Level is obvious more formally restrained than the audacious Aim for the Roses, which might be inevitable for a backstage doc shot within the NYO’s frenzied schedule, Bolton really taps into the psychology of creative types and artists who dedicate their lives to their craft. Take the glimpse at oboist Michelle who fastidiously makes her own reeds and obsesses over their every detail—something a musically ignorant viewer might take for granted, but relish. Similarly, anyone can related to their accounts of performance anxiety and enjoying the relief of connecting with individuals who care as deeply and passionately about the very thing that they do.

The various stories highlight the nuances of each composition that the NYO rehearses and it’s a thrill to listen to these young experts geek out over key changes and fermatas to illuminate the story, character, and essence of each piece. These interviews illuminate the music that the doc captures both during rehearsals and performances. To hear the story behind the music and then listen to textures of the compositions brought to life, one experiences a mastery of a craft by artists who understand the deeper meaning of pieces and convey the essential parts of the pieces that don’t reside within the musical scale. There is great depth of emotion to these performances.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that virtually none of the musicians say anything about their lives outside the orchestra halls and practice rooms, nor does Bolton follow the students around during their rare moments of respite. These musicians live and breathe music. One can only reach that higher level when music is one’s life.

That Higher Level premieres February 9 at 6:15 p.m. at the Victoria Film Festival.


That Higher Level (Trailer 90 seconds) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.