There’s a lot of things that are special about Leo Spellman.
As a Holocaust survivor, Leon Spellman made his career as one of Toronto’s Premier band leaders. Living a life marked by joy, the music that he created was memorable for many and gave people an opportunity to come together and celebrate in the post-war era.
Of course, Spellman’s experiences in the holocaust were never forgotten. Although he rarely spoke of them, the feelings and trauma that he faced left a mark on his soul. Finally, at the age of 98, Spellman took the opportunity to tell his story. However, instead of merely telling the story in his own words, Spellman transferred all of his hurt, joy and pain into song. Without words or lyrics to the music, Spellman communicates the truth of history through a rhapsody that communicates the depths of his heart. With every crescendo and fall, his stunning piece becomes his own form of testimony that allows the hearer feel his story.
Directed by Paul Hoffert, the new documentary The Rhapsody is the tale of the genesis of this amazing project. Narrated by Stephen Fry, the film is filled with honest interviews with Spellman as he speaks freely about his desire to unleash his passion through music. Even at 98, Spellman has a charismatic joy about him that is as infectious as the melody that he creates.
However, music is only one part of the story.
Initially, The Rhapsody began as an exploration of one man’s ability to bare his soul through his music. Nevertheless, things take a very different turn after Spellman‘s death when his family discovers his secret writings. Hidden away for over 60 years, these documents contain specific dates and events that unfold the horrors of the Second World War in grand detail, especially for those within Jewish community. Tales of having to evade German hunters and physical abuse at the hands of the Nazis are excruciating to hear yet they are told with such power that one cannot help but be riveted. (In fact, after hearing these stories, one can fully understand why he never chose to speak about them publicly.) As the viewer is allowed to sit with Spellman’s children while they read them together, they also bear witness to a family that is piecing together their history. Resolution and restoration take place before our eyes. As such, there is an intimacy and poignancy to these moments that moves the soul at the deepest level.
Structurally, Hoffert does an excellent job blending the text of the diaries with the tale of Spellman’s unfolding rhapsody. By weaving together timelines, Hoffert seamlessly integrates past and present with stunning beauty. As though the film is a musical compilation, he manages to bring together different elements to complete the whole. Animation brings the diaries to life while the orchestration emphasizes the raw emotions behind their stories. Spellman’s story is one of triumph and terror and Hoffert does an excellent job of bringing it to life.
In the end, what begins as a story of one man’s magnum opus becomes an epic tale of past suffering and hope for the future. Pulsating with passion, Spellman’s raw emotional honesty bleeds from both the pages of his diary and the notes that he combines. As history is revealed, his authenticity and soulfulness is a challenge to the viewer to see the realities of war with painful detail while calling for hope in the present.
Now, thankfully, Hoffert allows us to be a part of that experience as well.
The Rhapsody is now playing during TJFF ’22.