NYC street performers finally get their say
"Downtown Locals," a feature length documentary that premiers at this year’s Slamdance festival, follows the lives of six performers who use the New York subway as their stage. The filmmakers, Robin and Rory Muir, spent two and a half years digging inside a way of life that is "often marginalized by people’s preconceived notions," they state in press material. They give the artists who follow this eccentric path a chance to speak about their lives and art from their own perspective. The idea for the film first began to germinate when Robin found an article about the Music Under New York (MUNY) Auditions held in Grand Central Station. "So we set out to document these auditions," said the sisters. "We soon found that it wasn’t the auditions, but the people auditioning to perform underground and the people not auditioning but continuing to perform underground that were clearly the more engaging focus of our project." However, once the decision was made, the sisters had some difficulty finding the right performers. "Many performers were not interested in being a part of the film from the get-go, and I can only imagine others grew tired of being part of a long-term, no-budget project," said the sisters. "As much as we chose them, they chose themselves." The first performer the audience meets is Paul, a thirty-something guitarist who has left his day job to pursue his passion of performance. Soon after the beginning of the film, he urges the camera to follow him and leads the documentary to Ronnie. Also known as Mr. 14th Street, Ronnie has been performing on guitar, harmonica, and vocals every day in the same spot for four years. The complex relationship between the two is slowly clarified as the film progresses. Helen Stratford, a graduate of Vassar College, scrapes together a living playing an accordion while "Kenny T" impishly draws a crowd playing any instrument that uses a keyboard and break dancing. Julio, a Colombian who speaks only Spanish, cuts through the language barrier by dancing with a life-sized doll strapped to his feet. John, a struggling actor, rounds out the cast. For his act, he paints his face silver and stands perfectly still until a donation is made. He then springs to life with a jerky, manikin-like motion and says, "Thank you for supporting the Mercury Men." "The performers featured in "Downtown Locals" were committed to being part of the project, which meant giving two crazy sisters an access pass to their lives for a few years," said the sisters. "We like to think that being women, as well as sisters, we have an inherent closeness that somehow granted us a reciprocal level of trust and intimacy with the subjects of the film," said the sisters. As different as their acts are, all of the focal characters share the trial of sticking to their artistic integrity in the face of a culture, and system, which works to limit their options. A seventh ‘character’ is the legal bureaucracy of New York City. This is portrayed both through the commentary of Sergeant Repetti, a 21-year veteran of the Police Department who monitors performers in the subway. Of the six performers, only Julio is MUNY-certified, which allows him to perform under an official banner that tells policeman such as Sergeant Repetti that his act is sponsored by the city and not to be disturbed. Paul and Ronnie seem to ignore the requirement altogether while Kenny simply shrugs it off. However, for Helen and John, the formal rejection of their art is an acute pain. "I can’t even get cast in the subway," says John. "I have to go further underground." Two MUNY auditions are covered in the film. At the second, Helen portrays her attitude in the song she sings for the panel. "That you dare, even though you’re scared, is what gives us all hope." Paul was banned from the audition, but attends anyway, this time in protest. He stands still by a pillar near the proceedings, holding a sign that reads, "IS STANDING A CRIME?" While the film is often humorous it is always sincere. Downtown Locals succeeds in giving its audience a look inside something they have usually passed over, and allows the voices of this group to do the explaining. "People think it’s, like, and act of desperation," says Kenny T. But it’s not, says Paul, "it’s honesty." "Downtown Locals" is scheduled to premier at 5 p.m., Jan. 20 at the Treasure Mountain Inn on Main Street.
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