Sunday, April 15, 2012

“Under The Boardwalk: A Ukulele Love Story” (Nina Koocher Films)

Way back in March, 2011, I posted a review of a DVD entitled ”Mighty Uke”, a paean to the ukulele and its marvelous comeback in the 21st Century - - In my haste to crowd as much as possible into a manageable space, I did not at that time make reference to the world’s largest ukulele club, the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz (California). I now have a chance to rectify that omission, by telling you about another, equally entertaining uke film, “Under The Boardwalk”, devoted specifically to the Santa Cruz organization.

There are a few spots where this film (understandably) overlaps the other, in giving you a brief look at the instrument’s history and modern-day popularity, and offering additional glimpses into a few of the same people you saw in “Mighty Uke” (most notably the now-deceased Bill Tapia, seen performing with amazing dexterity at age 97). But this is very definitely a film about a specific group of people, focusing on specific members and their unique personalities (musically and otherwise), rather than treading over the same ground the earlier film explored so well..

It is to be expected that a film about a ukulele club would feature the ukulele, and of course it does. But filmmaker Nina Koocher realized that the people who play an instrument are just as important to her story as the instrument itself. So we’re given ample chance to meet a number of very interesting people with distinct personalities, but with a common musical interest - to promulgate the ukulele as an instrument people of all ages and states of well-being can have fun with in a social setting. Yes, there are collectors who show off their impressive collections of historical and unique instruments. Yes, there are performances by a number of well-known musicians, including singer-songwriter Jayme Kelly Curtis, 60’s-rockstar-turned-pop-music-historian Ian Whitcomb, guitarist George Kahumoku, and Herb Ohta, Jr., son of the famed Ohta-San, who brought the ukulele to worldwide, major-label audiences in the 1970’s.

But mostly we get to see just-plain-folks having fun playing the uke, regardless of their individual skill levels. In many cases, the skill level is quite high, but this is a club open to everybody, so members who merely strum along during the club’s entertaining sing-a-longs are just as welcome as those who can wow the crowds during the organization’s open jam sessions. And as we see people having fun, the infectious sounds they make encourage even the passive viewer to have fun along with them.

In case tou’re wondering wqy the film is entitled after a mid-60’s Drifters hit, the song has become one of the staples of the sing-a-longs. The members do a lot of Hawaiian songs as well, both from the islands and from Tin Pan Alley. But they certainly are open to all sorts of music, from Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Tommy James, even a “Hank Williams Night,” to pop songs of even earlier vintage. The idea, after all, is to have fun, not to be “ethnomusicologically correct”.

Of course, life is not always fun all the time. One of the most affecting segments is the memorial service for a key member of the club, Gene Galli, whom we first meet singing “On A Slow Boat To China” with his wife Emily. Galli also built a 12-foot pineapple-shaped ukulele for the express purpose of burning during the club’s “Burning Uke” ceremony, patterned after Nevada’s “Burning Man” ritual. So, it’s only appropriate that someone we see depicted as a colorful personality is memorialized by an event more celebratory than mournful. a surfboard-paddling service in which his ashes are dumped into the surf.

And that essentially sums up the club and, for the matter, the film - colorful, yet respectful of everyone present; lots of fun, but also thoughtful; championing an instrument and a laid-back way of life, but deserving of being taken seriously, albeit in a playful way. It’s a measure of the special qualities of this film that it makes me wish we had just such a ukulele club in MY town.

The main feature runs 74 minutes, but there is a generous offering of Bonus Features as well. Andy Andrews, who pretty much emerges as the main spokesman of the film (though certainly not the only major figure) discusses the derivation of the word “ukulele”. A couple members show us some of the more unusual items in their instrument collections, none perhaps as unusual as Ukulele Ray’s hand-crafted lunchbox ukes. And there are some fine performances, including Herb Ohta, Jr.’s full-length solo uke arrangement of “Over The Rainbow” (excerpted in the body of the film).

The DVD does not seem to be available through Amazon, which is instead selling a documentary by the very same title, about the game of Monopoly. I don’t doubt that’s a worthy film, too, but it has nothing to do with this film. Check out the ukulele “Under the Boardwalk” at