March 29, 2018 \ Geoff Birmingham
Case Study: the importance of trust during production

The mission of Music & Memory is to bring personalized music into the lives of the elderly and infirm. “Personalized music” is the key element. Plenty of research exists on the general health benefits of music, but Music & Memory focuses on helping this population access music from their past that has personal importance to them.

Many individuals suffering from dementia show little engagement with those around them, but Music & Memory has observed many times those same people recall and share events from their past, just by listening to a song from their youth. Music & Memory hired Reflection Films, in part, to try and capture some of those moments.

This, however, was easier said than done! We were filming in a nursing home, and Music & Memory asked the staff in the building to connect us with the residents who they knew were most involved with the Music & Memory program, but there was still no guarantee that we would witness music having a transformative effect on any of our subjects. So the general consensus was: “We’ll just have to hope for the best and see what we capture.”

One thing we understood from the beginning, though, was we were going to have to quickly earn the trust of the community we were entering if we wanted the project to be a success. And, sure enough, this ended up being a key to capturing one of the more poignant moments of the production.

Marilyn was a resident of the community and one of the primary advocates of the Music & Memory program. She took her iPod everywhere, listening to musicals she enjoyed as a girl. The staff introduced us to her, and it was immediately obvious she would be a good interview candidate because, unlike many of her peers, Marilyn was totally lucid and charismatic. She was, therefore, really the only resident in a position to be interviewed.

We gently floated the idea to her and got some resistance. Undeterred, we playfully joked with her about it, told her that we’d give her some time to think it over, and then check in with her again later in the afternoon. Over the course of the day, we saw her a couple more times, and always took the time to engage with her. By the end of the day, she came round to the idea of being interviewed, and I suspect it was because of the rapport we had established.

The best place for her interview turned out to be at the end of a hallway, but a gentleman, Mr. Carr, was parked there, reading his book out loud in a somewhat unintelligible way. We told Mr. Carr we wanted to interview Marilyn and asked if he would be okay remaining silent while we spoke to her. He seemed to agree.

During our chat with Marilyn, he made occasional little noises, but nothing too disruptive. Marilyn spent some time telling us how she went to musicals as a girl and how much she enjoyed listening to the songs now. At the end of our conversation I thought: “Why not ask her to sing one of her favorite songs for us?” This was not an idea she glommed onto immediately, but with a little coaxing, she agreed.

She set her iPod to play “Lullaby of Broadway” from 42nd Street, launched into song, and we began filming her. Lo and behold, a couple of minutes into her song, Mr. Carr recognizes the tune and begins half mumbling and singing along with her. Watch the clip above and you’ll hear him in the background. Transformative moment achieved! We switch gears and go from filming Marilyn alone to filming both her and Mr. Carr together. Marilyn declares, “See gentlemen!? See what my iPod can do!?”

Key production takeaways

Though we can attribute any number of reasons for why this moment occurred, it likely would not have happened without:

  • showing sensitivity to the community and earning the trust of its residents
  • imagining a way to go beyond an interview alone (asking Marilyn to sing for us)
  • demonstrating persistence, but in a gentle way
  • accepting the uncertainties entering the production and remaining flexible throughout

And what Reflection Films appreciated about its collaboration with Music & Memory

All of us know about the “power of music” and occasionally experience it ourselves, but witnessing it between Marilyn and Mr. Carr was quite moving, largely because it was so unexpected. No surprise, spending time in a community of elders was also a good opportunity to self-reflect. As Robin from Music & Memory says in the above excerpt, “We’re all going to be there, and we can think about what we want when we get to this point.”