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The Mighty Uke, Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds | reviews, news & interviews

The Mighty Uke, Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds

The Mighty Uke, Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds

A musical underdog fights back

The Langley Ukulele Ensemble: 'A group of preternaturally gifted photogenic teenagers'

Recorded music has a lot to answer for. Until its arrival, most people made their own music – at home, using whatever resources were to hand. If you were lucky, you might have owned a piano. The less well-off might have had access to a ukulele. Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher’s enchanting, lo-fi documentary stakes a bold claim for the ukulele’s pivotal role in 20th-century music history.

A variant of a folk instrument introduced by Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii in the 1870s, it was championed by King David Kalakaua, who was beguiled by the ukulele’s sweet sound. The annexation of Hawaii led to the instrument’s arrival in the US, where it rapidly soared in popularity. It was easy to play, and ukulele chord symbols became a standard feature of published sheet music. What went wrong?

One of The Mighty Uke’s funniest sections is subtitled Less Than Great Moments in Ukulele History. The first was the impact of The Beatles, arguably part of the shift towards us becoming passive consumers of ready-made music, rather than creators, composers and performers. The scarier clip is a late-1960s film of Tiny Tim playing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips", a rendition which would have done nothing to dissuade a casual onlooker from thinking that the ukulele was merely “an instrument associated with whackos and weirdos”. But there's been a resurgence of interest in the ukulele during the past 20 years, and the film plots the instrument's revival with a nicely chosen selection of interviews and performance footage.

There are giggles to be had from watching The Mighty Uke – an earnest exponent of ukulele hip hop can’t help suggesting a spoof from Flight of the Conchords, but this is in essence a joyous, quietly profound little film. There are marvellous sequences filmed in the backwaters of Hawaii, where the ukulele still features in popular culture, and at a meeting of Californian amateurs. Hawaiian teenagers enjoy an al fresco jam, and a 101-year-old who taught Shirley Temple to play is still going strong.

Most impressive are the remarkable Langley Ukulele Ensemble, led by the charismatic Peter Luongo – a group of preternaturally gifted, photogenic teenagers who perform with staggering fluency. Luongo is effortlessly persuasive, and convincingly stakes a claim for the ukulele as a perfect school instrument.  And his young players are so good that they’ve an annual residency in a luxury hotel in Honolulu. You really do get a sense of how communal music-making can make the world a better, calmer place. The Mighty Uke is currently on limited release in the UK, but at each showing there’s a Q&A with co-director Tony Coleman and a performance by Canadian virtuoso James Hill (pictured above right). You’re encouraged to bring your own ukulele to each screening, adding a genuinely immersive, 3D aspect to proceedings. Hill leads the audience in a mass strum to close proceedings, with an entertaining range of arm and leg gestures deployed to tell us when to change chord. Possibly the cheeriest artistic experience I’ve enjoyed in 2011.

  • The Mighty Uke is showing in Newcastle on 9 December and in Edinburgh on 10 December

Watch the trailer for The Mighty Uke


Watch Tiny Tim play "Tiptoe Through the Tulips"

 

You really do get a sense of how communal music-making can make the world a better, calmer place

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Comments

Do not be put off by being an amateur. I am, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Ieven bought the t-shirt.

A truly inspiring and informative documentary, and a fantastic evening's entertainment. I attended as an enthusiastic amateur ukulele player and I dragged along my 20 yr old nephew (who learned 2 ukulele chords in the car on the way from Wakefield to Leeds) and we both got as much out of the event as each other. Unfortunately, Bill Tapia (the 101 yr old who taught Shirley Temple to play, as mentioned in the article) died at the age of 103 last week. He will be sadly missed in the ukulele community, but his spirit and longevity serve to remind us what home-made music and the ukulele are all about.

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