Piano prodigies shine in feel-good documentary

Piano prodigies shine in feel-good documentary

Shanghai is the Promised Land. From the surrounding villages and townships, they come, Junior Franz Liszts pitting themselves against the best of the rest from areas that expand like repeating decimals.

Xia Yidi is eight. He’s the kind of lad you might expect to see playing with his toys. But when he puts on his dickie bow and starts tickling the ivories it’s as if he was born with a piano in his hand.

Where does this kind of talent come from? Is it inspiration or perspiration? He’s hardly tall enough to reach the piano, never mind hammer out sonatas on it. (He even has insights into Chopin, for God’s sake).

The Chinese are a lovely people – friendly, unassuming, emotional, warm. They also have an incredible work ethic.

The parents in Piano Dreams, which is co-directed by Richard Hughes and Gary Lennon, put their lives on hold to give their children the opportunity to get the best out of themselves.  They personify sacrifice and dedication. One couple even decide to live apart so the father can earn enough for his child’s tuition.

There are many stories here. A mother cries over a sick relative. Her daughter’s neck hurts from her exertions at the piano. She scours her phone to see if she’s gotten through to the next round of auditions.

A boy pins his hopes on being accepted for a position in a New York academy. If he is, he’ll be the first member of his family to study overseas.

The teachers of these three pupils are hard taskmasters. “Only one bathroom breaks per hour!” one of them barks. Another tells her pupil not to use her shoulders for force when she’s playing but rather her back.

Everything is tabulated. Failure isn’t an option. As a pre-credit diktat informs us: “There is no Plan B.”

There are 40 million piano students in China. If the trend continues, they’ll soon be as prevalent in people’s houses as televisions or computers. The expansion must surely produce a world figure in time. We may even be seeing him – or her – in the present film.

When it began I had worries about the premature adultification of the children on view. I also had concerns about what we might call “The JonBenet Ramsey Factor” – i.e. Toddlers in Tiaras.

Some years ago, I watched a documentary about Chinese children being trained to be circus artistes. It seemed to me as if they were being turned into automatons with the workload.

My fears were allayed on both scores here. Even though the pupils work their socks off, they retain their personalities. And unlike the circus film, they don’t get beaten if they say they’re too tired – or bored – to work.

Piano Dreams is a sweet little film that leaves us with a warm glow. It tells us you can be a workaholic and still be yourself. I dare you not to be charmed by these mini-maestros.

One for all the family.