Sweet songs under Alberta skies
Review of "Guitar Lessons" by Peace Country Films.
“Forget about Eddie Van Halen, forget about what the idiots on YouTube say. Learn your chords. Learn C, G and F – it all starts from there, the rest comes later.”
Most amateur guitar players will chuckle at this comment made by Ray Mitchell (played by Alberta country singer-songwriter Corb Lund) to his 15-year-old guitar student, Leland Parenteau (played by Kaden Noskiye) in Guitar Lessons. It’s true: you can play a lot of songs if you know these chords. At the end of the movie, when Leland mastered the three chords, Ray says, “Then you’re set for life. Johnny Cash forever.”
Guitar Lessons is an independent, locally produced (High Level, Alberta) movie. Its success has by far exceeded the expectations of the low budget film – it even made it into the Cineplex Theatre local circuit. Most members of the cast are Indigenous, many with no previous acting experience. Yet the acting is real and plausible. In the words of producer Aaron James, “We play ourselves.”
Corb Lund is not a name easily dismissed – at least not in Alberta. Recently he played a crucial activist role in advocating for stopping coal mining on the slopes of the eastern Rockies, an involvement that was instrumental in changing Alberta government policy. In this movie, he showed how well he could take on another effective role: that of actor. Despite his reputation, Guitar Lessons doesn’t capitalize on Corb Lund’s persona. He doesn’t even sing in the movie. In a Q & A session after opening night in Edmonton, producer Aaron James mentioned the focus was not to be on Corb.
Leland is a Métis boy growing up neglected in a ramshackle trailer in a Métis settlement near High Level. Mom is not around. Dad has died but left Leland his guitar. One day he comes home to find his guitar missing. It is in the local pawn shop where his mother traded it in for cash for whatever fix she needed.
In one of the many panoramic shots featuring clear Alberta skies, Leland pushes the only items of value remaining in his home – a table and four chairs – along the dirt road to the pawn shop, to trade in for his guitar. But he needs a teacher, and he relentlessly pursues Ray Mitchell, a rich oilman with a previous life as a rock star, but who has no time for “this kid,” and who isn’t – in his own words – “exactly a straight arrow.” What happens when he finally relents to giving lessons is a mellowing into a relationship of sweet and credible understanding and kindness. As Leland says, kindness “takes practice. Just like guitar lessons.”
Be warned: there is some rough language, and some off-colour jokes – done in Cree, and translated with subtitles. There are some great lines, like “The funny thing about time, is you [white men], you have all the watches; but us Indians, we have all the time.” Some slapstick-y scenes go on a bit long, but they are quite funny.
In one of the most moving scenes a member of the community desperately approaches an elder for help with his gambling addiction. The smudging scene that follows is profoundly spiritual. It reaches into the deep needs of this man and pulls him into a place of strength.
The incredible panoramic scenes of beauty in the movie go beyond being merely pretty. The Creator in indigenous spirituality is not an abstraction. Creation serves as a member of the cast.
Films dealing with Indigenous culture sometimes condescend toward the culture or romanticize it. Guitar Lessons does neither. It respects the people and their spirituality. You wish you could chat with this elder!
The ending tips towards being Hallmark-y. Ray and Leland eventually live the ideal father-son relationship – fun at the circus, shopping for cool clothes and fishing. The ending was a bit too easy, given their damaged and checkered pasts, but it does make for a good feeling story, and, just perhaps, dramatic changes can come, even to the most hardened and tough men.
There is a plan for Cineplex to release Guitar Lessons in all provinces on February 24th.