Looking back on it, it's strange to remember that an earlier edit of Rock That Uke featured a running voice-over narration by producer and co-director Bill Robertson, in which he recounted the history of the Hawaiian Islands from Cook to Statehood and the ukulele from Nunes to now, as well as his own personal history of shattering his mother's plastic ukulele over his father's head at the age of three, being humiliated in front of his band class for his musical ineptitude by his junior high teacher, and finally picking up the uke again at the age of 24 during a booze-soaked period of depression in the early 80's that led to his electrifying and distorting his uke and screaming his lungs out.
Oh, sure--it sounds engaging conceptually. But the road trip from concept to reality is always a harder journey than one expects. The car doesn't run as well as you had hoped. The weather isn't as friendly. And the scenery has much, much, much more farm land than you'd envisioned.
And, as we trimmed and re-trimmed Rock That Uke, we found the documentary containing less and less of Bill's droning, monotone recounting of first Hawaii's history, then the ukulele's, then, finally, his own, until all that was left was an opening and closing frame of poetic, moody prose, that wasn't particularly specific to Bill.
And we realized that we were free to find another voice-over narrator. One who was not simply less nasal and mumbly and monotone, but perhaps someone professionally trained. And hell, if we were willing to go that far, we concluded, why not actually get someone who was talented as well--perhaps even extremely talented? Maybe even superlative?
Sure, sure, it seems obvious now. But it's all a discovery process. You'll find that out when you make your own non-narratively driven post-punk ukulele documentary.
Our decision to approach the staggeringly talented and unbelievably gracious Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter to do Rock That Uke's narration was a quick one as we contemplated who among Bill's friends in the biz should be the lucky victim. When we called Holly, Bill exclaimed to her--or at least to her phone answering machine--that she was "the human rock-and-roll ukulele."
We believe that, too. Only, you know, as a compliment.
For those familiar with any of Holly's extraordinary performances--Raising Arizona, Broadcast News, Roe Vs. Wade, Always, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, The Piano, The Firm, Living Out Loud, Copycat, and When Billie Beat Bobby to name just a few--she is, as a screen presence, both visually and audibly, small, but filled with a fire and passion and unfathomable depth that gives her the quality of monumentality. And this quality is what we felt then and now makes her uniquely suited to lead the viewer in and out of the odd themes presented in Rock That Uke.
Several days after leaving our phone message, we got our own call. "Bill. Hey. It's Holly Hunter," she said in her intimate southern staccato. It was one of the happiest moments in our production, second only to the Casey Korder telling us that he believed aliens had brought the ukulele to earth.
Though intended as an appreciative compliment by us, to call Holly "gracious" is misleading in a certain respect. "Gracious" suggests an element of condescension when doing pro bono work in an underground flick. Anyone who has worked with Holly knows that, professionally speaking, she is the least affected human being on the planet. She doesn't telephone anything in. When she commits to something, she commits. And goes to work. She doesn't just breeze in, read her bit and leave--she tells you what she thinks of the two paragraphs you've faxed to her days before and hunkers on the steps with you and quietly offers how she thinks the material should be played in the documentary (and this is after she's already completed her recording and has another appointment to get to). And you look into her brown eyes while she's talking to you and you think, "Jesus. She's actually thought about this. And the weird thing is, she gets it." And then you think, "I'm just a loser. A loser making a low-budget documentary about ukuleles. And Holly Hunter is giving me everything she's got. What in God's name is wrong with her?" That's Holly.
Well, those who've seen Rock That Uke know that Holly's narration sets the tone about as perfectly as could be imagined. Where Holly Hunter is concerned, the road trip from concept to reality is short and sweet. Much like Holly herself. Even if the quirkiness and inaccessibility of our subject matter overcomes whatever marketability Holly's participation has brought, we at Rock That Uke are content that her work has made our work everything that we wanted it to be.
PS: Special thanks must go out to our friend Robert Wheeler, founder of Ukulele Consciousness, for his astoundingly generous act of providing a 1920s Regal ukulele from his collection to present to Holly as a gift of appreciation for her pro bono work in our project. We initially called the founder to inquire about the possibility of purchasing a ukulele as a gift. When we told him who it was for, he gave it some thought, and then offered up the Regal for free in what he called "an act of Ukulele Consciousness." Thank you, Robert.
And thank you, Holly Hunter.