New documentary Michael Cleveland
“Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story” Released Globally March 1 2019
By Rob Dickens
I first saw Michael Cleveland play at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) World of Bluegrass event in Raleigh North Carolina in 2013. Peter Rowan had a set in one of the large rooms at the Conference Hotel and had assembled quite a large and somewhat ramshackle-in-appearance and perhaps hastily-assembled ensemble.
Of course they turned out to be a highly talented group of players, so good that they played brilliantly with not much apparent rehearsal. But, on that morning, no one stood out as much musically as fiddle player Michael Cleveland, standing quietly at the extreme of (our) stage right. He was mesmerising – playing in a style and to an ability to which I was not accustomed. I have followed his career since that day.
Now we have a worthy visual testament to this gifted man who is one of the most sought-after and celebrated musicians. A documentary which is warm, informative and engrossing.
Two weeks ago, Flamekeeper: The Michael Cleveland Story premiered at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville. The film tells the story of Cleveland and the great personal hardships he has overcome to become one of bluegrass music’s most revered instrumentalists.
Cleveland has won more IBMA Awards than anyone. Fiddle Player of the Year eleven times and Instrumental Recorded Performance of the Year on six occasions. Cleveland also fronts the five-time Instrumental Group of the Year, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, which he founded in 2006.
Cleveland was born blind and with a cleft palate. In early childhood he lost 80% of the hearing in his left ear. In spite of these challenges, he undertook a musical career undeterred and has ascended to the highest possible echelons of his genre.
One of the movie’s strengths is the treatment given by its director John Presley, whose hand documents objectively and provides a compellingly visual and musical narrative while empathising with its subject.
“I learned that our visually impaired friends see the world in an entirely different way,” says Presley. “One of my goals was to create a film that Michael would be able to experience and enjoy through sound alone.”
“When I was first approached about the idea of a documentary film about me, I was definitely surprised, and it still seems so surreal,” adds Cleveland. “For as long as I’ve been playing music professionally, I have made it a point to keep the focus on the music and not the fact that I am visually impaired. I decided that if I was going to have a career in music, I wanted to make it on my abilities as a musician and not the fact that I was blind. After I talked to John and took a few days to think it over and run it by my family and the rest of the Flamekeeper team, I realized that this could be an inspiration to some young kid somewhere with a dream that looks as impossible as it seemed to me when I was growing up and dreaming of a career in music.”
Flamekeeper features interviews with multiple Grammy Award winners Bela Fleck and Vince Gill, who says of Cleveland, “It’s wicked to see how much music he pulls out of a bow—He’s untouchable.” Also appearing in the film are such music notables as Sam Bush, Jens Kruger, Jeff White, the Bibelhauser Brothers and Andy Statman.
Flamekeeper is a joy to watch if you are a bluegrass fan. Presley was joined on the project by co-producer Cortlandt Ingram, a familiar name in the bluegrass world whose knowledge was an essential part to the film’s success.
BUT … the movie goes beyond bluegrass – it can be enjoyed by anyone whose music tastes are deep and, in fact, by any of us who are captivated by dreams and desire. It’s proof that that there is hope, you can achieve anything if you apply yourself.
Flamekeeper was released globally to audiences online through Amazon and other streaming platforms on March 1, 2019.
Here’s the movie trailer:
Via Alison Auerbach / AAPR
New documentary Michael Cleveland