With this in mind, Saturday afternoon entertainment was provided by a documentary focusing on the humble ukulele. Entitled Mighty Uke, the film is the brainchild of Canadian editor Tony Coleman and his partner Margaret Meagher, and their initial idea of filming a modest 10 minutes short blossomed into a feature-length documentary when unexpected funding was found (as Tony explained in the post-screening Q&A).
What they’ve managed to assemble is a fun, heart-warming look at an instrument which tends to get marginalised as a quirky pastime but, as the film illustrates, there’s much love out there for this four-stringed creation, as huge legion of fans from around the globe consider it a rich interactive experience and ultimately, a means of bringing cultures together. It’s referred to by one enthusiast in the film as a “unifying force”, and it’s hard to disagree with that kind of grandiose statement when footage of a pub in Taunton, Somerset presents a room full of ukulele-wielding guests, all strumming along (and having what looks like a thoroughly fantastic time) to one of the memorable bluegrass numbers from the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Originally brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, throughout the years the ukulele has been integrated into the work of many figures from popular music and used in an array of genres (the film offers a glimpse of some surprisingly solid and credible ukulele hip hop and has European metal artists extolling the instrument’s many virtues). Leading figures from that world are also covered here, from contemporary virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, to an inspirational, Mr. Holland’s Opus-type Canadian teacher named Peter Luongo, whose skilled pupils are flown every year to a Honolulu hotel where they take part in a two-week residency and teaching workshops.
James Hill (another uke wiz to feature heavily in the doc) is accompanying the European tour of the film, and played a live set after the screening to a rapt crowd (his slinky, highly-accomplished rendition of Bille Jean really has to be seen, and heard, to be believed). In keeping with the intimate and personal atmosphere, audience members who owned ukuleles were encouraged to bring them along for the afternoon, which culminated in a unique (and indeed, stirring) jam session and sing-a-long.
The tour continues in a number of venues around the UK during the next week or so (the official website has more details on these events) and while it may not be the most obvious choice for an evening trip to the cinema, like the instrument itself, it offers a surprisingly fun and accessible musical experience.