Welcome guest reviewer Tom Jacobs!

We don’t really have a word for the ancient Greek arête — best translated as “virtue” — and it’s a damn shame.   The humble, ceaseless, and impossible but necessary pursuit to achieve something like earthly perfection or at least self-improvement.  This seems like a pre-modern term, but of course it isn’t.  A movie like Broke* provides a case study for thinking about it.  This is a story about the kind of virtue and grace necessary to avoid succumbing to the time-clocked, bottom-line, cut-to-the-quick efficiency that seems to be darkening the land at the moment.

At the center of the film is Will Gray.  A totally unassuming yet subtly charismatic fellow, Mr. Gray is the sort of person who seems to defy all of the vanities that drive and deride most of us.  When I arrived at the screening, he himself took my ticket, thanked me for coming, and offered to find me the best of all possible seats available.  I didn’t think much of it until I realized he was the filmmaker, the director, and the protagonist of this film.  Once I realized this I went from a kind of “whateverness” to feeling a sense of awe—the feeling you get whenever you see someone gilded by being on film and a vague sense of the work that must have been involved in creating the movie.  And yet the movie is somehow not about him, it is (perhaps in ways that he is unaware of) about the difficulty and importance of seeking to embody and irradiate arête in the modern world. (fn.see here  for an explanation of the asterisk after the title “Broke*”)  This explanation verges on the sentimental and silly, which, I suppose, any truly sincere work must always verge on…) It begins with clips of Mr. Gray effortlessly dunking over the heads of opponents in high school basketball games, which leads to a scholarship.  Mr. Gray summarily abandons his scholarship to pursue music, however, and therein lies the story.

What does it mean to “break” as an artist?  Well, of course it means to be financially broke, but also to question what it even means and takes to “break” into the firmament of the industry, or at least to make a living.  With zero formal training, Mr. Gray makes a movie about how difficult and amazing and heartbreaking all of this is, and in so doing, shows himself to be a precocious documentary filmmaker.  The narrative momentum begins with his scholarship, takes us through his insistence on paying for a tour with his band (towards whom he shows remarkable love and charity, even though it lands him in $10,000 in credit card debt), and culminates in…well, I won’t say.  We witness his unceasing efforts to land a record deal and to license a few songs to commercials or tv shows or movies.  His interviews with a range of industry folk (who are generally surprisingly frank and hilarious — e.g., his interview with music journalist Steven Ivory, whose estimation of Kanye West will keep you giggling for at least fifteen minutes) and finally, to the film’s conclusion, of which, again, I will not speak or spoil.

The centerpiece of the film is the band’s rendition of Patty Griffin’s “Top of the World,” recorded in Nashville with the idea that if they could just play and record one great show, that might do more than tens of thousands of hours touring could ever do.  So they play some original songs (many of which combine hip hop and the banjo to surprisingly great effect, to give you some idea) and then launch into “Top of the World.”   It is here that Mr. Gray, his fellow musicians, and the film itself show how one heart-rending song can make an audience feel the resonance and wonder, the heaviness and weight of a singular performance.

The overwhelming optimism at the heart of this film, along with the total absence of any political perspective, while perhaps a bit willfully naïve, doesn’t much detract from its significance or relevance.  We need more Will Grays in the world, and it is good to know that, even though the effort to break in or be broken can break the best of us, it is still possible for art and arête to co-exist.

— Tom Jacobs