In the opening moments of “Pocket Full of Soul: The Harmonica Documentary,” blues great Jerry Portnoy acknowledges preconceived notions about the harmonica. He says when he tells people he plays the instrument, “There’s always a dead pause. ‘You’re not a real musician.’”
“Pocket” then sets about to debunk that misconception.
“What we hoped was to set up the tone of this instrument being something that a lot of people associate with a toy,” says producer Todd Slobin. “Our hope and goal was clearly to show that it’s much more than that.”
Like the harmonica itself, “Pocket Full of Soul” is a compact thing that explodes with life in the hands of Slobin and his partner, filmmaker Marc Lempert. It includes testimony from notable harmonica players such as James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Clint Black, John Popper of the Blues Travelers, the J. Geils Band’s Magic Dick, the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson and Taylor Hicks. The film also includes great archival footage of harmonica greats, an informational segment on the mechanics of how the instrument works and a valuable history that explains its prevalence. The harmonica is, perhaps, the only thing Abraham Lincoln and David Lee Roth have in common.
The film has been in the works for more than six years, which speaks to the volume of material the two Houston natives and childhood friends had to edit, including 300 hours of footage the two shot plus hundreds more hours of archival material.
“We were salivating over some of the stuff we were sifting through,” says Lempert. “At the end of the day, we had to make decisions that ended up supporting the story we were trying to tell instead of sitting back and rocking out on the couch to the best footage.”
There was a lot of history that couldn't make the final cut.
“You could do a nine-hour PBS documentary on the harmonica and have it be Part 1," Slobin said. "There’s so much history. And while we were shooting, people would tell us to check out this person or that person. You want to include everybody, but that would be impossible.”
The story that arises in “Pocket Full of Soul” is described by Lempert as “a thesis about the ubiquity of the instrument.”
The harmonica is an inexpensive and portable instrument that, despite its size, projects incredible sound and spirit, which certainly explains its prevalence in so many cultures around the world. The goal was to shatter expectations that “Pocket” would just be a blues documentary. “Hopefully, as seen here, it cuts across all sorts of cultural lines,” Slobin said.
Since the instrument is cheap, it adds to the global appeal.
“Regardless of socio-economic factors, most people have been able to get a hold of a harmonica, put it to their mouth and make it work,” saidLempert. “There’s a great global understanding to what the instrument does.”
The film truly began to take shape more than six years ago when Lempert and Slobin attended a harmonica conference in Dallas for a project unrelated to the film. By the time they left the convention, the two felt there was a long-form story to tell.
They set about securing interviews with some of the instrument’s best-known practitioners as well as combing through older footage. One of their subjects was Huey Lewis, whose voice and enthusiasm were such that they eventually hired him to narrate the film.
The description of how the instrument works is one of the highlights, an efficient and enlightening explanation of the instrument’s sound. Lempert deconstructed a harmonica and animated the segment.
“It’s quite a feat of engineering,” he said. “There’s nothing like it other than the human body that works that way. To play the harmonica right, you have to tap into the basic mechanics of breathing. The beautiful aspects of breathing. That helped with the telling of this story.”
“Pocket Full of Soul” will be screening in 15 cities this week, including Houston, Austin, New York, Beverly Hills and Seattle. Lempert and Slobin aren’t sure what the next step is, but they’ve been getting queries as far away as Australia.
“We’re trying to get it out as fast as we can,” Slobin said
Adds Lempert: “We have an angry man in Norway champing at the bit to see it. He’s pretty mad that it’s not in any theaters in Norway Thursday.”
‘Pocket Full of Soul’
Followed by discussion with the filmmakers
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: River Oaks Theatre, 2009 W. Gray
Tickets: $11; must be purchased at least four hours before screening at www.pocketfullofsoulmovie.com