Naomi Friedman doesn’t have any illusions about her musical ability. Handsome and witty, she tunelessly honks a bit on a kazoo during the opening scene of Ode to Joy, a documentary about a group of Houston seniors who have a kazoo band.
“Oh, that is absolutely awful,” she says. “But I do try.”
It really is pretty bad, but as we soon find out, music isn’t actually the point. Friedman and more than a dozen other residents at the posh Brookdale Galleria retirement community meet regularly to practice loose renditions of popular classical tunes.
They start one rehearsal with “March of Toreadors” from Bizet’s opera Carmen. Each plays at a slightly different speed so that after only a few bars, it’s completely unrecognizable. The group melts into peals of laughter at their unsuccessful effort, and that’s the point—the camaraderie, friendship, and fun they share during rehearsals and occasional performance.
Filmmaker Michael Koshkin, Friedman’s grandson, first heard of the group when she enlisted his talents to help earn them a spot on Ellen. What started as an audition tape quickly turned into Ode to Joy, where Koshkin focuses less on the group’s musical prospects (they’re dismal, honestly) and delves into the band’s deeper meaning.
“The absurd image of a group of elderly people playing kazoos together initially got my attention, but no, the film isn’t so much about that,” he says. “There was clearly something more going on.”
Koshkin captures the group’s wry humor during a rehearsal. One woman holds her new plastic kazoo up like a cigar. “Much better kazoo—quality,” she says.
Another woman, with biting wit, brags about the group’s talent. “Our weakest point, when it comes to playing, is when we do Beethoven. Because some of us start off playing ... ‘Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’ and some of us play ‘Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.’ Simultaneously."
"But we sound good,” she quips, in perfect deadpan.
After the rehearsal, the group readies for a performance at a daycare center. One of the group’s few male members politely offers to help the women change into their costumes. “Well, I don’t know about that. We’ll see if you get any offers,” says Tracy Ahrens, the group’s leader.
At the gig, the audience—a group of toddlers and their parents—is largely unamused. One kiddo is frightened by the sound of the kazoos and wails throughout the short concert. Others stare in bewildered astonishment. Yet the band soldiers through.
A sense of loneliness surfaces on the bus ride home. “I’m exhausted, and I haven’t done anything,” Friedman says.
When a bandmate protests that she has, in fact, done plenty, Friedman firmly corrects her: “I didn’t do anything. I just came and went.”
Koshkin notes the impact of the moment. “The scene on the bus ride home after the performance felt heavy as I was shooting, but I didn’t realize until watching it in the edit how powerful of a statement it was. I think it’s the most truthful moment of the film and definitely the most vulnerable.”
The film ends with the group performing a rousing, if slightly disjointed version of “Ode to Joy.”
To date, the film hasn’t earned the group an invitation to Ellen, but the seniors have been appreciative of Koshkin’s efforts. “I’ve heard nothing but positive reactions from them," he says. "I don’t think they really knew what I was up to. There was always a bit of You can film this, but God knows what you’re gonna use it for. And then when they saw it, they seemed to appreciate the light I shined on the subject of getting old.”
You can watch the full film (embedded above) on vimeo.