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Photo of scene from The Sound of Us // CIFF

CIFF 2021: Director Chris Gero talks film The Sound of Us

By Rachneet Randhawa, January 15 2022—

The Sound of Us is a music documentary that premiered at the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) 2021 and showcases that despite the tumultuous times we are living in, music as the great, universal language that unites us all. Featuring interviews and performances by international headliner artists such as Ben Folds, Sarah McLachlan, Avery Sunshine, Patti Smith and Sekou Andrews, the film sheds light on how music can heal us and give us hope for the future whilst uniting us all. The Gauntlet sat down for an interview with the director and music producer, Chris Gero, to learn more. 

Filmmaking is a new endeavour for Gero as his background is as a music record producer for many years. He grew up in Paris, Ontario, for most of his youth, mentioning that he had a difficult upbringing. Regardless, his older brothers fostered his interest in music as he followed in their footsteps. 

“I started to learn how to play the piano and then I started to take lessons by a jazz pianist by the name of Manfredo Fest,” says Gero. “Being a very intuitive individual and being really street smart, I just used my intuition to kind of carve my way to where I needed to go.

He began his career when he was 17 years old as an artist on a major label as he was mostly living in the greater Los Angeles area doing songwriting. Later on, he began to produce very well-known artists at the time which ultimately led to him being endorsed by the company Yamaha Music. As for what spurred his latest interest in filmmaking, especially the inspiration behind the Sound of Us, one of the reasons is the political chaos he has been witnessing in the media in the last couple of years. 

“Ideas have become very weaponized,” he says. “As we got closer and closer to the national elections, I became more and more concerned, where we were going and how we were treating each other. I needed to send a message to the world about how goodness and greatness are made through the unity in music and how music creates empathy and creates this deep, deep feeling of awareness of each other. And I want to explore why that exists and how it exists.” 

It was when his son prompted and inspired him to become a filmmaker to tell the story of the tumultuous times and complicated world we live in. 

“I realized that I had a responsibility to him and I had a responsibility to you and I had a responsibility to the world to remind us of the goodness of who we really are. And the one common denominator that we all have, collectively, is how we interact through music. Music is really a conduit in which we are all good,” says Gero. 

Music has been in shared human history before language and Gero would define music as something that you feel with every piece of your body which changes your entire being and a different feeling that owns you for the moment. 

“And it could be something as simple as just hearing a little jingle on some ad on television to hear some top 40 things on the radio to hear this gigantic epic score,” says Gero. 

As a new-age music documentary, Gero hopes audiences draw inspiration from the film. 

“I purposefully wanted to make a film that created a conversation but was delivered in a way in which you have to surrender to the difficult parts of the conversation. And that’s what music does, music breaks down the difficult walls that we can’t talk about or are afraid to talk about,” he says. “I came to a place where I felt this overwhelming responsibility to tell a story in which the difficult parts of the conversation would be accepted through the fact that you’re representing it in emotion, which is what music is for me. And so when you’re presenting very difficult observations or conversations and you’re doing it through this medium, you accept it and you are empathetic to it.” 

For example, Gero explains that if you take away the melodies and the music, the plot of the narrative becomes political and very protest-driven. 

“But when you add in this gorgeous texture of how it’s presented through the beauty of the soundtrack, the beauty of these big soaring orchestras and performances and presentations, you naturally just surrender to it.”

The most difficult aspect of making the film was, of course, COVID and its restrictions, including shutting down the set immediately every time someone tested positive for COVID. 

“We filmed most of the principal filming in the span of about two months, in five countries. And we had about 800 hours of interviews,” he says. “And so COVID kind of drove the way we shot the film. And ultimately, the end result we had about 30 segments and we paired them down to nine and a lot was due to the sensitivity around COVID.” 

Gero mentions that this particularly stalled the shooting of controversial subject matter in a sensitive environment, but it was well worth it mostly due to the on-set collaboration and camaraderie including fun shenanigans. Six people were involved in making the film and they were like an inseparable band of brothers and sisters. 

“Toward the end of filming and the end of editing you’re just burning so much energy and burning so many hours that you just become so silly and inseparable and slap happy,” says Gero.

As for how much they stuck to the original script Gero’s approach was more free form rather than standardized, claiming that it’s hard to storyboard a script for this type of film. He asked a small group of producers to go out and discover extraordinary stories of relatively ordinary people doing extraordinary things through the power of music. 

“A really great example of it is what we refer to as the Holocaust segment, which is the story of Francesco Montoro, who is from Berlin and Italy and who has dedicated his entire life uncovering the lost compositions of people that died in concentration camps, especially during the Second World War, so period about between 1933 and 1953,” said Gero. 

The story goes that Francesco Montoro would not initially agree to meet with Gero. 

“But it wasn’t until I asked him personally out of the 1,000’s and 1,000’s of compositions that he’s uncovered and recreated — was there one that meant something to him more than everything else?” 

After this brief interview, Montoro accepted the invitation to be part of the film.

Moreover, every single segment had to unveil itself first as they would shoot it. They would allow it to naturally unravel and get to a place where they could form the storytelling. This was almost a backwards approach to writing a film but it worked well, precisely because the subject matter of the art of music was so free form. Although they received authentic content using this approach, it was challenging at times — for example, the composition of “Amazing Grace” by Sekou Andrews. 

“The most challenging segments required a lot of energy. And the ‘Amazing Grace’ one probably was the biggest one because we were taking a piece of music, the most recorded piece of music in human history, and we were really reinventing it. And for me, I knew going in that was kind of sacrilegious. But it’s one of my favourite pieces of music that I do,” says Gero. 

Most of the film’s narrative was attempted in that everything was deconstructed gracefully. 

“The hardest part of the entire film was it all being authentic and being true. And that’s the beauty about music, it just simply doesn’t lie.” Gero says, “I think the biggest challenge for us and for me making the film was never veering from [the] truth. There’s two big moments — the ‘Amazing Grace’ component and ‘The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed’ are both big segments that speak of truth through its truth and uncomfortableness.” 

For instance, the film’s themes address everything from slavery and the Civil Rights movement in the United States, to the Holocaust and the musicianship associated with it. The social justice aspects of the film are portrayed in a way that is uplifting rather than divisive. 

“And the decisiveness that has been created over the period of especially here in the United States. It was almost like a veil of life, what was hidden underneath, it got lifted and it’s ugly.” 

Gero shares a story of one of his good friends — a Black man and musician Nathan Easton — and the double standards he has to live by. 

“I’ve had the honour of working with him, he’s a very well-known bass player and I’ve produced both of his solo records and did a documentary on him in 2015 and it’s just a beautiful man. But we often go to these very deep conversations about the life he has to live as a performer and then the life he has to live as an individual. And I’ve witnessed through the 25 years that we have been good friends some of that and I take that for granted because I live a pretty privileged life.” 

Another meaningful example was Betty Lavette who sang the rendition of “Strange Fruit” which is essentially the cannon of Black music. 

“And I immediately was horrified by the song and yet, felt a responsibility to reintroduce the song into the world. Because then I started doing a really deep dive on the song and the author and the meaning and everything about it,” says Gero. 

The lyrics of “Stange Fruit” tell the tale of the lynching of Black Americans and the brutality and racism of the practice of lynching in America’s South that compare them to the victims of the fruit of trees. 

“I say it in the film, sometimes our truth is spoken through music and sometimes the truth is unpleasant.” Gero explains, “I live in a very Republican part of the country, I live in a very progressive Christian conservative part of the country. And I was actually quite concerned when we started to screen the film, here in a very conservative part of Tennessee, and a lot of the messaging regarding police brutality, regarding racism, I was worried that I’d get beat up pretty badly about it. But I didn’t.”

Based on how Gero originally envisioned the film, it exceeded his expectations and turned out better than he expected as so far it has received rave reviews.

”That’s one thing to say, you want to make a film that has an impact. And it’s another thing entirely to do it. And connecting people with an emotion through visual art is also really hard. I composed all of the soundtrack as well, which is what I do with all the films that I make and I do that because I know sonically and visually where I want something to go. It was the Holocaust segment [which] was the first one that was done and if you go back and you listen to it together, it was done with this phenomenal degree of intent,” said Gero. 

Although most of the film was shot by trial and error looking back in retrospect, Gero mentioned that if he were to do it all over again he would approach the entirety of the film similarly to how he filmed the last two segments of the film that is the “Amazing Grace” scene, performed by Sekou Andrews and “Smile” by Sarah McLaughlin. That is, in a very intimate and exposed raw presentation. The gigantic choir segment and song by the artist Mercy Bell towards the end of the film is the cherry on top. 

“That’s the point is that you go on this journey where you at some point in the film, you surrender to the entire idea. And by the time you get to the end, you’ve got nothing left, it’s just exhausted you and so the hardest part and the most gratifying part of making the film was having people come to me watching it in the theatre like watching people react is amazing. Everybody who is watching the film will have their unique takeaway,” he says  “What is music to you? This is music and it is proven, that it is love and it is kindness and it is goodness and it is diversity and it’s equality and it’s unification and it belongs to each other.” 

As for the most important quality or attribute of being both a music producer and now film director, Gero expressed that he has always had a passionate drive that comes from his work ethic of producing another artist. As a lifelong veteran of the music industry, he has worked with every big artist on the planet and so his film work will be taken with a great degree of respect. 

“The beautiful thing about music is it just simply doesn’t lie. And what is just, deeply inside of me is this need to connect and to create emotion to communicate through the medium to other people.” 

For those hoping to enter the Canadian film industry, especially for new and aspiring directors, Gero says to live your own truth and offers feel-good advice. 

“What I mean in finding your truth is, allow yourself to make your journey in being true to yourself and be okay to make all kinds of mistakes and surround yourself with people that will allow you to do that,” he says. “And be okay with that and be gracious in that, because that is in fact the key to ever-growing.” 

This film was more than just a passion project for Gero, but essentially a pivotal moment in his career. 

“I needed to tell the story about the goodness of all of us through music but I needed to shed it from my own internal place.” 

As for parting advice for youth and students looking to get involved in the arts, Gero suggests again to remain authentic, transparent and accountable to yourself and at the end of the day, you be you. 

“We live in a place where everything is really now very instant gratification on so many levels,” he says “And what that creates is this apprehension, too. To be accepted in music is a form of communication — it’s a manner in which we send and receive information through this really deep level. And if you don’t take the chance to either send or receive, then you cut yourself off of being truthful. And when you’re young, this is going to be the hardest part to wrap your head around.” 

Gero provides more insight. 

“When you’re trying to figure out who you are in life and you’re trying to figure out what you want to do in this life, I promise you in saying this, you never figure it out. But that’s the beauty about art, is that it breaks all that down. And if you allow yourself to be true to yourself, all of that really kind of falls away.”

One key takeaway Gero hopes audiences will receive is that music creates this common bond in all of us and that it creates this ability to feel for each other, care for each other and have empathy for each other regardless of background, race and religion. 

“The film is designed to break down the real and it creates this environment in which you can tell the truth. And so I hope it inspires people to be better people and inspires people to be good to each other and inspires people to own the truth. And not a version of it that’s fabricated for any other means than good,” says Gero. 

Although the Sound of Us didn’t receive any audience choice awards at CIFF 2021, it was one of the most impactful stories about music precisely because it addresses how music can be a source of healing and goodness in the malevolent times we currently live in.

The Sound of Us had its Canadian premiere at CIFF 2021 that ran from Sept. 22 to Oct. 2 and was one of our top editor’s picks for the Music category. Be sure to check out this eternal sonata and a whimsical showcase of the art of music galore and the universal language that unites us all.

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