I Am Not A Rock Star **** (Out Of *****)

Over the next few days I’ll be covering some events for the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. This is one I couldn’t get to, so I’m reviewing it early.

There is no end to my fascination with child prodigies. The natural talent, the ambition to succeed-things most people will never have-some realize when they’re toddlers. When I read the synopsis for I Am Not A Rock Star in the CIMM Fest line-up, I knew I wanted to see it. Unfortunately the movie is playing at a time when I am not available, so they were nice enough to send me a copy to watch at home. Bobbi Jo Hart’s documentary about a young pianist becoming a world-renowned talent is not a new story, but it is a great look behind the curtain to see what drives these individuals.

When we first meet Marika Bournaki she is 12 years old and newly accepted into Julliard pre-college. Hart shows her as an even younger girl playing a recital, and it is very clear that she is gifted. With that gift comes a lot of responsibility, and showing how that burden can wear a person down is where this movie really shines. In our first encounters with Marika she is generally bright-eyed and excited to be playing piano, travelling to New York from Montreal every weekend to take classes at the esteemed school her father also attended.

It doesn’t take long, though, before we see the toll it takes. After a recital at the age of 14, Marika is talking with an older gentleman who starts ripping her performance apart and all the exalted joy she was feeling disappears. She’s been taught from a very young age to be perfect, so if one person didn’t think she played well, what was the point of doing it at all. She appears quite strong and confident about her work, but any young person would be crushed with that kind of criticism.

A couple years later she moves from her home to go to Julliard full-time. This is where we start to see her becoming her own person. At home her father was as much of a manager as a parent. Being away from his constant watch allows her to discover the things that she likes and figure out what she wants to do with her life/career. The pressure to make her father proud seems to be a constant weight on her, and even though he often tells her that he is proud, he never seems lit up with excitement about what she is doing.

As she gets older, Marika starts to think that maybe being a concert pianist isn’t what she wants. Her father goes with her to London for a concert she’s been invited to play, and while the performance goes well, the tension is high between the two of them. The weight of Marika’s career has been felt in Montreal while she’s been away. As she returns home for summer for the first time in five years, we find out that her parents are divorcing and her mother is about to move out. Talking to the camera, her mother says she doesn’t blame Marika or the time her husband has dedicated to their daughter’s career, but it’s pretty easy to tell that’s exactly why she’s leaving.

Even at 17 or 18, that’s a lot to put on a kid. And that’s what I find so interesting about young people like Marika-they have to grow up so fast that it’s hard to imagine they will end up being well-adjusted adults. But from what I saw in the documentary, she seems to be doing great. The life of a prodigious child is difficult-even more so when one of the parents is also a great musician. The pressure is unimaginable to me.

Like any good documentary I Am Not A Rock Star shows the highs and the lows of its subject. There are scenes where we see what Marika is like in “typical teenager” situations (though I don’t know how many typical teenagers have a poster of Glenn Gould on their wall). We get to hear from her friends, who obviously love her but wish she would spend more time with them. She meets a boy and we get a few scenes with them together that are funny and sweet. Mostly we get to see the sacrifice made for the sake of music, and it’s a great statement about what we are willing to give up for what we love.

There’s a quote Marika gives at the very end of the film that I found really inspiring: “Maybe I don’t always love practicing. Maybe I don’t always love myself. But I always love music. I’m serving something higher, you know? It’s my religion. I really do think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” And just like that what could be seen as a bit of a sad tale becomes very uplifting.

I Am Not A Rock Star is screening at film festivals around the country, and can be seen on Friday in Chicago at Heaven Gallery on April 19th, 8pm. Following the movie, Marika will give a short performance and do a Q&A.