'The Tuba Thieves' Review: Alison O’Daniel's Experimental Doc About Deaf Musicians & Theft Doesn't Ever Harmonize [Sundance]

In 2021, filmgoing audiences were treated to “CODA,” an affectionate look at a music-loving high school senior and her complicated bond with a deaf mother, father, and sibling. A year earlier, “Sound of Metal” presented the devastating journey of a rock drummer’s hearing loss and subsequent attempts to cope with his unfortunate predicament. The relationship between a musician and their art can be seen as beautiful and uniquely complex. Still, when the deaf community enters into this rapport, it becomes something only someone without the ability to hear can fully appreciate. There’s no reason such an individual can’t have a passion for music; indeed, plenty of talented musicians throughout history, across various instruments, who’ve thrived as much and left an indelible mark on the medium.

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It’s doubtful this sort of reflection is what anyone expected from the plot of a film entitled “The Tuba Thieves.” A slice-of-life documentary utilizing re-enacted footage but stripped of the talking head soup that usually permeates other films of this ilk, “The Tuba Thieves” recalls the somewhat aimlessness of such docs as 2020’s “Jasper Mall” but without the decaying suburban shopping mall charm of the latter. Instead, ‘Thieves’ tries to string together a series of what might be seen as interconnected stories, most having to do with a hearing-impaired group of friends, their experiences with music, and a shaky framework. Yes, it does revolve around the unusual theft of a large number of brass instruments from a series of Los Angeles-based schools from 2011 to 2013. 

Make no mistake, the thefts did, in fact, occur, but you’ll need to rely on the power of your favorite search engine to find more detail and whether the instruments were eventually recovered (spoiler: to this day, they have not). It’s somewhat unclear why these events were used as a jumping-off point by director Alison O’Daniel, who herself identifies as d/Deaf, and somehow contribute to a strangely experimental feel that never seems to go away completely. It isn’t just a story about missing tubas that pops up infrequently. Unusual scenes of a ‘50s-era piano recital seem to serve the same sort of purpose as the latter, along with the occasional detour onto such equally confusing paths as, say, a third-act performance by an interview with a pair of Spanish-speaking acoustic musicians. It doesn’t seem to matter if O’Daniel had a plan when assembling “The Tuba Thieves” or if the final product is nothing more than a trial-and-error attempt to convey a message. When laid out and viewed from afar, the result has the same effect as an abstract painting that a casual art buff might find difficult to understand fully. Let it be said this medium remains subjective.

Luckily, there are redeeming moments scattered within; the sound editing makes excellent use of drops in volume, focusing on the background noise, and combined with the hardcoded subtitles, clearly indicates this is just as much a movie for those who can’t hear. Scenes at the aptly named Deaf Club in San Francisco present a startling juxtaposition of a hardcore punk band performing while a table of elderly women plays cards not far from the energetic crowd. And the opening, which shows a young man undergoing a hearing test that culminates in his removal of a pair of headphones in silent frustration over being unable to hear the words the audiologist has fed him, can’t help but ooze sympathy. 

The apparent “star” of the film also exists as what could be viewed as an unintentional tribute to “Sound of Metal.” That’s Nyke Prince, a pregnant drummer who spends her scenes signing to various friends about things on her mind ranging from the eventual care of her unborn child to stories of her mother. Scenes like this, however, always tend to jump back into a sea of apparent randomness, be it recurring scenes focusing on people musing over large commercial aircraft taking off again and again or a moment when O’Daniel decided to don her creativity cap and turn the camera upside-down as it haphazardly emerges from a highway tunnel apparently adjacent to several blazing wildfires. It would be tricky to ignore the belief that O’Daniel’s goal with ‘Thieves’ very well had legs, but the resulting film seems unsure of that mysterious objective, which is a shame.

That said, it’s hard to feel all that bad as the credits roll, as this truly is a forgettable film that exists more as an odd collection of footage than whatever it is the intended outcome O’Daniel envisioned. Maybe there lies within ‘Thieves’ a handful of better films deserving to exist on their own that find themselves strung together via the connective tissue of tuba heists and piano concerts. Ultimately this potentially could be seen by some as a touching study of deafness, but in the latter case, it’s lost, even if it was possibly never found to begin with. The effort deserves a nod, but the execution stumbles, falls, and, whether intentional or not, can’t be saved. [C-]

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