Photos by David Pu’u
Watching Rachel Flowers pound out Keith Emerson’s “Trilogy” is an inspiring experience. With lightning speed and accuracy her hands race across the multiple keyboards, bringing energy and drama to the notes. The velocity of the tempo and complexity of the orchestration are merely child’s play in her delicate yet nimble hands. The more involved the composition, the better she likes it: she starts to sway a little and nod her head in rapture as she abandons herself to the music. Her enthusiasm is infectious, carrying you along on a wave of sound. Musicians train for decades to achieve this kind of prowess.
At 20 years old, Flowers is just approaching the threshold of what is likely to be a long, successful career. Local filmmaker Lorenzo DeStefano hopes to document this point of departure for the musical prodigy with his latest project. “She’s 20, and on the verge of something big,” DeStefano says. “I wanted to do a portrait of her life.”
That portrait is the documentary-in-progress Hearing Is Believing. DeStefano garnered the support of friends and some of the best local talent to make the film, including renowned cinematographer David Pu’u and sound editors Steve Miller and John Austin. CalArts animator Jerrold Chong will be creating animated portions for the film as well. “There’s been some incredibly talented people who’ve come on board,” DeStefano says. “And Rachel’s the magnet. She’s the one that convinces people, her music and the person she is.”
DeStefano has a wide-ranging body of work. He’s written and directed for both the stage and screen, directed documentaries and even produced a television series — although he might be most familiar locally for founding the Ventura Film Society. Flowers first came to his attention when he saw her playing a gig with her jazz trio Ottsen, Flowers & Clark at Squashed Grapes. He was immediately struck by the musician and her story: In addition to being immensely talented, Flowers is also completely blind.
Born 15 weeks premature in December 1993, Flowers suffered from retinopathy of prematurity and lost her eyesight in infancy. Music seems to have been her first method of relating to the world. Playing on a perfectly tuned piano for the first time in preschool (her piano at home was old) prompted her to finally start speaking at age 3. She had a tendency to link people and events to the music that was playing at the time. Even now she has a musical equivalency for color and taste. “Sometimes I’d eat and hear musical notes,” she explains. “Macaroni and cheese is G-E-D. B-flat minor for applesauce. Raw carrots was a C minor.” “I really believe music is her first language,” adds Jeanie Flowers, Rachel’s mother.
DeStefano took some time to get to know the Flowers family (including her father, Dan, and her brother, Vaughn) before proposing the documentary. They were a little hesitant at first. “I’m not comfortable in front of a camera,” Jeanie Flowers admits. But over time, DeStefano’s talent, sincerity and respect won them over. The Flowers’ appreciated his previous documentaries on Los Zafiros and Talmage Farlow, and also recognized the film as an opportunity for her music to reach a wider audience.
Rachel Flowers’ hands race across the keyboard with lightning speed.
“We want people to hear her music,” her mother explains. “Just getting her name out there. And with Lorenzo, it just seems like a good fit.”
Shooting started in April, with the usual interviews of Flowers and her family and friends, and footage of her performances. DeStefano and Pu’u have also tried “tracking life,” as they say, by filming her going about her day-to-day activities. Small DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras are being employed, which create a more intimate feel and “allow [the operator] to disappear more easily.” There’s also an element of, as Pu’u explains, “eavesdropping with permission”: Cameras and microphones are set up on Flowers and her companions when they’re driving to a gig or working on a project, sans film crew, to capture less guarded interactions. Chong will be creating an animated version of a dream Rachel had that inspired one of her compositions. Capturing a blind person’s emotional and musical experience in a visual form is an ambitious undertaking, but as Pu’u explains, “We’re trying to bust up the documentary form a bit.”
A documentary needs to hit a lot of marks: You want a factually correct film that still has elements of drama and that’s honest without being exploitative. “You can enlighten without exposing,” DeStefano says. “That’s what we’re after.” His choice of subject gives him a lot to work with. Flowers can’t remember a time when she couldn’t play piano: Her mother taught her at age 2 to keep her from pounding the keyboard with her toys. She picked up Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star almost immediately, and soon was learning to play other songs, on her own, by ear.
“We knew really early that she was a special musical kid,” Jeanie Flowers says of her daughter. “Dealing with issues of her blindness, there are institutions in place. The resources are available and you can easily find them. Dealing with the musical part was much more challenging.”
Teaching music to the visually impaired is not a new idea, but traditionally the emphasis was on playing by ear. Jeanie Flowers wanted more for Rachel. “Many parents of blind kids who are musically inclined think it’s good enough to play by ear,” she explains. “But I felt she had the right to be musically literate. So finding the right teacher was a little tough.”
Luckily, the Southern California Conservatory of Music in La Cañada had just opened its Braille Music Division a few years before. Flowers started attending classes there at age 4, where she studied under a variety of teachers, including David Pinto and Grant Horrocks — both renowned in the field of music education for the visually impaired.
David Pu’u sets up a shot for the documentary, Hearing is Believing.
“Grant Horrocks really understood how blind pianists play and the drawbacks they face,” says Jeanie. Pinto is something of a pioneer in the field of assistive technology: He developed the CakeTalking for SONAR tool, which allows blind musicians to compose and record on their computers. Flowers herself uses this technology. Her YouTube videos have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, and even caught the attention of English musician Keith Emerson, who has become a fan and often refers to her in interviews as “the carrier of [my] legacy.” All of these experiences will be included in the film.
DeStefano has organized a few community events to help generate interest in Hearing Is Believing. He recently worked with the New West Symphony Orchestra to have Flowers perform with the children in the Harmony Project, and plans to arrange a free solo piano concert in August at Libbey Bowl. “We want to bring the community into the project,” DeStefano says. He also sees a real benefit for Flowers.
“We’re taking Rachel into a more mentorship or leadership position, which she’ll have to do as a professional musician.” Flowers, who enjoys her work with Ottsen, Flowers & Clark, is excited at the opportunity to perform on a grander scale. “When the audience gets really excited, it makes me happy,” she says. “You get to hear their applause. … I just really like that energy.”
After just 12 days of shooting, DeStefano and Pu’u are feeling optimistic. “This isn’t fully scripted or planned out,” Pu’u admits. “Things have shifted as elements of the story start revealing themselves. But for a challenging project, it’s going really well.” He credits Flowers with much of the success: “Rachel is a dream actor. She follows direction, she’ll replay things . . . . She just responds so well.”
DeStefano is banking on the quality of the footage and the appeal of Flowers herself to raise more money for the film with a crowdfunding campaign this summer. “This is the story of a family that triumphed,” he says. “The inspirational aspect is huge.”
The filmmaker expects that filming will take place throughout the year, although he is putting together a package to shop around to film festivals in September. The completed feature should run around 80 minutes and is expected to be in full theatrical release in 2015. The entire film crew has their work cut out for them, but everyone on board is committed to the cause.
“There’s a lot of faith here, financially, and in terms of time and talent,” DeStefano says. “Many people are getting involved. But Rachel is such an inspiring person. It’s hard to mess up. The Flowers are ready for us, and we’re ready for them.”