In an ever-hastening digital world, there's something deeply comforting about seeing the fastidious, labor-intensive production of a concert-quality Steinway piano, a process that takes nearly a year from start to finish. It's equally satisfying to see such fastidious effort applied to filmmaking, as director Ben Niles' documentary is as deliberate and lovingly handcrafted as the 88 keys of its subject.
Each Steinway passes through many hands on its way to the sales floor, beginning with a "wood technologist" who selects the finest logs right from the forest, on site in Alaska. Then it's on to the factory floor of Steinway's Queens plant, a holy place staffed with a merry international polyglot of Slavs, Bengalis, Filipinos and Brooklyn-bred schmoes. They're an eclectic lot, none more colorful than rough tuner Dan Duddy, a tie-dye-clad, mellowed-out Deadhead who adorns his work space with comic book posters and torn ticket stubs. Many of these working stiffs wouldn't know Chopin from "Chopsticks," but after years of working for the company, they've become as proud and protective as a mother bird waiting on an egg to hatch.
This passion for the finished product is reflected by the idol worship of a variety of top-notch musicians who wax rhapsodic about the ethereal qualities of the strings and the pedals. Harry Connick Jr. lovingly recalls the challenge he felt when he first heard Erroll Garner, and Chinese virtuoso Lang Lang cheerfully explains that his earliest inspiration came from hearing Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Like any good doc, Note draws you ever deeper into a world you might not have known or cared for, and is remarkable in its ability to make something as dry as woodworking seem like high drama. At times it's also impossibly fussy and borderline precious, as in the torturous scenes of finicky pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard selecting the perfect piano for his Carnegie Hall performance. The infinite complexities of tone and timbre might be lost on the untrained ear, but it's impossible to ignore the joy in the faces of a family buying a grand for a prodigy son; three generations get caught up in the simple glory of music. They say that every piano has a soul; if only every movie had one as warm and rich as Note by Note.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31. Call 313-833-3237.