A Review by Rachel Kunjummen Paulose
“Life on Four Strings” is an inspiring documentary featuring Jake Shimabukuro, one of the world’s leading ukulele performers.
When he was four years old, Shimabukuro’s mother put a ukulele in his hands for the first time. For Shimabukuro, it was love at first string. After the devastating divorce of his parents while he was still in elementary school, Shimabukuro turned to the ukulele for comfort.
Shimabukuro proved to be an enterprising child, despite his lack of access to any network of wealth or power. Shimabukuro essentially raised his younger brother while his mother worked late into the night to support her two sons. He helped form a band, Pure Heart, which led to local engagements in his native Hawaii. With help from a school music teacher, Pure Heart produced a CD.
Largely self-taught, Shimabukuro experimented with form, sound, and style. He composed his own music, a challenge on an instrument with but a two octave range. He even wrote to Kamaka, a leading ukulele maker, requesting a personally made instrument tailored to his requests. Skeptical at first as this seeming audacity from such a young person, the company actually produced a four string tenor ukulele after hearing Shimabukuro’s impressive work.
Shimabukuro describes how his insecurity as a young man caused him to try to “make the ukulele something else.” Eventually, Shimabukuro learned to let “the instrument breathe” and “utilize space” in his music. He respected its unique sound, even while he learned to play a wide variety of genres on the instrument.
At local schools, restaurants, and radio stations, Shimabukuro carefully crafted his art for years. Hawaiians enthusiastically embraced him, both for his talent and for the attention he brought to a native instrument which Hawaiians regard as an integral part of their rich heritage. Shimabukuro speaks soulfully of the importance of interacting with his audiences. He says on stage, “In that single moment, you just feel so connected with everything around you, physically, mentally, spiritually, you feel like you’re doing the one thing you’re supposed to be doing.”
Providence smiled upon Shimabukuro in 2006, when a passerby in Central Park recorded him playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and posted the video to YouTube. Overnight, Shimabukuro rocketed to international fame. He was booked for an engagement on the Conan O’Brien Show, whose host effused Shimabukuro’s performance was one of his “favorite” acts. A host of national and international shows booked Shimabukuro, who performed with artists from Yo-Yo Ma to Jimmy Buffett. “Rolling Stone” and music critics raved about Shimabukruo’s sophisticated handling of the ukelele. He began touring around the world, and Japanese music devotees in particular flocked to his shows. Under the protective wing of his manager, almost a surrogate mother, Shimabukuro thrived.
The documentary follows Shimabukuro’s major life events, including his courtship and marriage to Dr. Kelly Yamasoto, an infertility specialist. At the time of filming, the couple was expecting their first child, a son. His family, including his divorced parents, remains close knit and an important part of Shimabukuro’s life.
Despite his relative youth (he is only thirty-six), Shimabukuro impresses as a genuinely humble person still shocked by his unexpected global following. He is a thoroughly likeable artist, equally at ease with young children in a school auditorium, elderly victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami for whom he played on site in Japan, and cheering audiences at major concert halls.
The film is slow paced, despite its relatively short running time of one hour. Nevertheless, Jake Shimabukuro’s life as depicted in this film is a classic Asian American success story which will inspire and educate.
Tadashi Nakamura directed “Life on Four Strings,” which is a production of the Center for Asian American Media. PBS will be airing the documentary on Friday, May 10, 2013 at 9 p.m. Film festivals also are screening the movie nationwide.