reativity thrives in community. Thoreau and Emerson had their transcendentalist posse; Dorothy Parker had the Algonquin Round Table; C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and J.R.R. Tolkien had the Inklings; Warhol had his crew at the Chelsea Hotel; and anyone who is anyone knows that Jay-Z, Beyonce, Yeezus, and Rihanna are in the Illuminati.
The music documentary film The Sea In Between (2012) upholds this notion that collaboration strengthens artistic expression. Self-described as an exploration of “what happens when the ever-narrowing gap between artist and audience disappears,” The Sea In Between follows neo-folk singer-songwriter Josh Garrels and the Brooklyn-based arts collective Mason Jar Music on their trip to a remote island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada.
This so-called artist-audience gap dissolves right at the film’s conception: the trip itself was initiated by Blayne Johnson, a fan of Garrels’ music. When Johnson saw Garrels’ phone number on his website, he gave him a call and invited him to visit his home on Mayne Island. Garrels accepts the invite, asks his Mason Jar Music friends to join, and the adventure begins. The artist-audience walls are indeed torn down and together the group births a collection of captivating musical performances filmed against a gorgeous landscape, all while capturing a story of the transformative effects of the collaborative creative process.
Mayne Island is the perfect location to record Garrels’ songs in part because his lyrics are rich with nature imagery. To say that the island frames the performances in a most fitting manner would be an understatement. Take, for instance, the film’s opening scene: Garrels perches on a cluster of rocks in the Pacific Ocean singing “Ulysses.” Surrounded by the majestic blue, Garrels belts out: I’m sailing home to you / I won’t be long / by the light of moon I will press on / so tie me to the mast of this old ship / and point me home. Boats sail by in the background and snow-capped mountains loom faintly in the distance. An epic backdrop for an epic song.
In one of my favorite scenes, the group performs “Fire By Night” singing the lyrics… tomorrow mountain we will climb / tonight the stars and fire shine in our eyes / in the woods / we’re alive …in, you guessed it, the woods. At night. Under a starry sky. And here’s where the cynics begin to roll their eyes a little and groan about it being a little perfect. But the film doesn’t compromise authenticity for airs. That woods scene was a near fiasco because the generator powering the lights and sound equipment runs out of gas and the whole performance is a near miss.
The island fosters robust artistic performances, as do the elements of collaboration. Garrels is a solo artist in the fullest meaning of the phrase: he tours alone, performs alone, and records all his albums alone (in his bedroom, no less). Not surprisingly, his music comes alive in a fresh and unique way when accompanied by incredibly talented performers playing a long litany of varied musical instruments, including clarinet, cello, djembe, accordion, violin, xylophone, guitar, drums, mandolin, charanga, flute, and banjo. The music in the film is quite superb; Garrels’ songs never sounded better.
But the transformation does not stop with Garrels’ music: the musicians themselves undergo changes. Playing with a new group, in a new setting, forces them to reflect on deeper questions about their motivation and craft. As one of them puts it, “I began to ask myself, ‘Why do I play? Why do I seek out audiences? Why do I need this validation?’” Working in a collaborative creative environment shifts the spotlight from focusing primarily on one individual artist and invites the audience to draw their attention to the finished product instead. Art and creativity thrive in community in part because the final product is shared, as is the experience of creating it; and, as one of the musicians points out, “joy of art and music comes when you’re able to share and experience it with someone else.”
The Sea In Between is essentially an 82-minute long invitation to enter into that joy. In the film, Johnson argues that being a patron of the arts is no longer reserved solely for the wealthy. Technology makes it possible for anyone to directly support the artists that they admire. The transformational power, thus, is not limited to the creators themselves; rather, listeners are invited to join the community and participate in whatever way they can, be it blogging about a particular album or artist (ahem), contributing to a Kickstarter campaign to fund a project (as with The Sea In Between), or even calling up an artist directly and inviting them to your house for a vacation. Who knows? A fantastic documentary just might come of it. All with the mere click of a button.