Max Richter's Sleep PG. 100 minutes. 4 stars.
Across the mid twenty-teens, composer Max Richter staged a series of ambitious concerts of an equally ambitious composition.
Sleep was an eight-and-a-half hour work comprising 204 movements, starting at mid-evening and finishing in the early morning, with the concert venue laid with bedding instead of seating.
Being lulled to sleep by and ingesting Richter's performance in an unconscious state was part of the whole point.
As he explains in Natalie Johns' part-concert-film, part-documentary, Richter is interested in the auditory memory we build in-utero, the musical memories we take in during an unconscious state.
Natalie Johns' camera is at a number of performances of Sleep, including Oxfordshire, London, Palo Alto but we spend most of our onscreen time at the staging in a park in downtown Los Angeles.
Shot beautifully throughout, the film opens with scenes of a city at night, people moving about, which feels almost like a fantasy after a year of COVID. The buildings become more familiar and we recognise the deco silhouette of Los Angeles City Hall.
As his Grand Park audience takes to their beds, not seats, and get comfortable, the strings, vocals and synths commence, and will play just a fragment of their full eight-plus-hour whole throughout the film.
With his pixie nose and classic Nordic good looks, Max Richter is an impressive figure, though he prefers to tell his story through music.
'Music is my vehicle for travelling through the world,' he explains, though his patient wife Yulia Mahr shares through the film the flip side of loving and supporting a creative partner.
Mahr in voiceover ponders on the frustration of being stuck at home with their many children while Richter gets to travel the world. She explains how exciting life became for her when the filmed streaming of live concerts became popular, and she could suddenly participate.
Mahr's private family archive of images and home movies supplement Natalie Johns' concert work, and help us build an understanding of who Max Richter is, and how a work like Sleep might come about.
Richter might be well known to music types, but for the film aficionados, his work is familiar having provided the scores for works including Cate Shortland's Lore, Scorsese's Shutter Island, and television work including Black Mirror and The Leftovers.
Interestingly, we come to understand as the film progresses that Richter sees his film work as only a means to an end, and that he would rather write and play for a thousand people who have no understanding of music at all than for a small crowd of classic enthusiasts in an opera house.
Ambitious works like Sleep take time and money to develop, and we understand part of Richter's drive and the sacrifice he and his family have had to make to get him to the level that he can pursue his ambitious ideas.
But the discussions about the man are only a small part of this languorous work. The film seems much longer than its 100 minutes, and that is going to be a blessing or a curse depending on how the idea of so slow and ponder-some an eight-hour concert sits with your musical taste.
Much like sitting down for those epic 10-hour television train journeys, the filmmaker wants you to slow your brain down. After a year of watching television and our phones simultaneously, most of our brains need a good resetting frankly.
Particularly as the film enters its second hour, blocks of time are dedicated to whole movements while visually we appreciate the production crew's lighting of the Los Angeles park in blues.
The staging of the event is beautiful in itself, hundreds of beds clustered in various patterns. The audience each in their own states as the evening progresses of wakefulness, raising their heads to catch lovely little fragments of performance, deep in slumber, snoring, marmot-staring into space, wandering to and from the bathrooms, and a little bit of yoga.
We meet a few of the audience members. The camera catches a woman writing in her diary during the night, and we cut to a later interview of her and the wife she dragged along but who adored the great night's sleep. There is a visual artist walking around the venue and later explaining the peace of the event really helped her get some deep thinking done about a work that had been causing her trouble. Natalie Johns shot a number of the other concerts, and moments of those are edited in for a bit of a different visual palette.
Both Richter's performance and Johns' film are an antithesis for the pace of our everyday life and I really appreciated the time out. One of his audience members explains it well, saying Richter's soprano had him in a trance, "Like a mermaid trying to pull me into the ocean".
There's a beautiful moment of this talented man wandering through his audience as his work unfolds across them, something not too many performers get to experience.