When Rachel Flowers was two, she could pick out “twinkle twinkle, little star” on a keyboard. Pretty good going, but that didn’t necessarily make her “a prodigy”… I mean, Mozart wrote that arrangement of TTLS when he was two. When she was four and a half, Rachel was playing Bach fugues by ear… OK… ok… you win. The girl’s a prodigy!
Fast forward 18 years and Ms Flowers is a Youtube phenomenon due to her spirited interpretations of a catholic collection of complex musical pieces, most notably for our purposes here, several classics from the Prog Rock canon. Lorenzo De Stefano was as impressed as anyone else (as he makes clear in the interview elsewhere on this site) and having gained the trust of the Flowers family, was well placed to capture the early trajectory of this shooting star…. and it’s to our considerable benefit that he has done so in this beautiful documentary.
As the author (among other admirable efforts) of a previous documentary about the abdicated king of bop guitar, Tal Farlow, DeStefano’s qualifications for painting a human portrait are impeccable. Wisely side-stepping such questions as the influence of heredity (it quickly becomes apparent that Rachel is the scion of a very musical family) and whether her extraordinary talent is despite or in some way because of her visual handicap, he concentrates on the effect that Genius exerts over those whom it chooses to inhabit and on the people with whom they share their lives. We get to know Rachel’s mom Jeanie, whose obvious pride in her daughter coincides with understandable anxieties and apprehensions… her brother Vaughan, whose individual identity DeStefano makes a point of honouring… and her father, whom we gather has become to some extent estranged from them and with whom reconciliation occurs (or is progressed) when he starts losing his own eyesight and his daughter becomes his mentor, which makes for tremendously touching stuff.
We see family footage of Rachel as a baby in an incubator, where she spent three months when there seemed little likelihood that she would lead any sort of life, let alone a remarkable one. Thereafter home movies begin to alternate with news reports on her precocious musical exploits. With director DeStefano on the scene we see her going about her small town stuff at home in Oxnard, CA… participating in family gatherings where she plays the shit out of whatever musical instrument is placed in front of her, taking the bus to a day at the braille institute in Santa Barbara, singing at church (where, range wise, she makes Minnie Ripperton sound like Ringo Starr), playing stuff for local school kids, wowing people at the supermarket with an impromptu performance of ELP’s Benny The Bouncer, collaborating with a local youth orchestra on one of her compositions… when several of her precious musical instruments are lost to burglary, scores of local people help out.
Half way through the film, as Rachel is idling on a swing, there’s a pivotal dolly, zoom and dissolve to a train in the distance, en route to destinations unknown. Thereafter, the portents of a very different life begin to accumulate. David Pinto, music teacher for the blind, assesses Rachel’s talent as “not one in a thousand but one in ten thousand.” After a session with Arturo Sandoval, he tells her: “You are a flower.” Rachel plays with Taylor Eigsti’s band and he declares her “freakishly, unbelievably talented!”
We accompany Rachel and Jeanie to the Namm Convention at Anaheim, where she knocks everybody’s socks off on various state-of-the-art keyboard rigs and gets to hang out with Stevie Wonder, her idol (mine too, if you’ll indulge me in a sappy moment) Keith Emerson and Dweezil Zappa. The latter encounter sets up the documentary’s climax, as she joins Zappa Plays Zappa on stage in Las Vegas to contribute keys to Inca Roads then swap blistering guitar solos with Dweezil on Montana. Although the latter piece could easily be construed as quintessentially snotty FZ (a kind of dark reverse to ELO’s Wild West Hero), I’ve always felt its writer harboured a sneaky regard for the protagonist and compassion for the frailty of his goofy dreams of transcendence. Rachel Flowers’ aspirations are anything but goofy, though as she blazes her own trail (twinkling, twinkling… her “tweezers gleaming in the moonlighty night”) she will undoubtedly face setbacks and pitfalls. Whatever… this is a talent that will not be denied and to which, one imagines, Mr DeStefano (and many others) will be returning.
Hearing Is Believing? You ain’t heard nothing yet!