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October 19, 2011

And the (Disabled) Band Played On

Inspiring doc shows there are no 'handicaps' to making beautiful music together

It's hard enough to get 29 people to work together. Harder still when they're of different ages, races, genders, abilities, temperaments, cultures, religions, and more. Harder still to pull such a variety of humankind together and get them working in synch, creating a product -- no, a work of art -- that is nothing short of a masterpiece. Now, add one final challenge: All 29 of those people are disabled.


But that's just what Javier Pena has pulled off with the Spirit of Goodwill Band, a group of disabled adults in South Florida who truly are making beautiful music together. Pena, the director, is clearly a skilled musical leader, but it's his sensitive, patient, almost magical touch with these differently challenged adults that is a wonder to behold. Pena's story, and that of the musicians in his group, is chronicled in For Once in My Life, which aired earlier this year on PBS's Independent Lens and is now available on DVD.

The band -- which includes percussion, brass, keyboards, guitars, and lead and back-up singers -- is made up of folks with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, and blindness. None were skilled musicians when Pena took the part-time, nominally paying position. But he has turned the group into a legitimate performance outfit which has also recorded its first CD, by the same title as the film.

The New York Times hailed the film as "feel-good" and laud its "rare look at a segment of the population, adults with disabilities, that is largely invisible." Veteran Hollywood director Tom Shadyac (Bruce Almighty, Liar Liar)called it "entertaining, inspiring, compelling."

While Pena's leadership is certainly a highlight, filmmakers take us into the lives and homes of several of these disabled adults, where we learn their family histories, some of them quite sad, but always with a note of hope -- especially as they begin to realize their potential with the band. And early on in the film, we learn that they're gearing up for their first major public performance: A stage show in front of thousands at a Miami convention for America's mayors. Will they be up to the task? You can feel the tension as the big day nears, anxiously hoping that they'll come through when the spotlight comes on and the curtain goes up.

The DVD and/or the soundtrack can be ordered here, and here's the trailer: