25 Aug 2021

Review - Max Richter’s Sleep

From At The Movies, 7:33 pm on 25 August 2021

Dan Slevin wholeheartedly recommends this documentary about composer Max Richter's 8.5-hour ‘lullaby’ being performed in front of an audience of sleeping people. 

Dan Slevin: We've become quite fond in our house of the music of Max Richter since we first became aware of him from the soundtrack to the best American TV series of the last decade, The Leftovers.

That music drew on themes that he had been exploring since his first CD came out in 2001 and, like many composers, he has been subsidising his less commercial work with high profile film and television soundtracks.

My wife can spot him from a hundred paces now, and his music has graced some pretty wonderful films: Waltz With Bashir, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, The Congress, The Lunchbox, Ad Astra.

In 2015, he embarked on his most ambitious project yet, an eight-and-a-half-hour, 204-movement, concept album called SLEEP, designed to be the soundtrack to a full night's rest. Richter calls it a lullaby.

You can buy it digitally and on CD - although getting up to change the discs might defeat the purpose somewhat - and it's been performed about a dozen times in different cities around the world, with a ten-piece orchestra including a soprano singer and Richter himself on piano and keyboards, surrounded by an audience on camp cots and who have brought their own bedding.

Many will sleep through the performance, most for some, some for all, and the film Max Richter's Sleep - which is streaming now at DocPlay.com - centres on a 2018 performance outdoors in Grand Park, Los Angeles.

The director Natalie Johns, with the help of some drones, levitates above the park but we also meet some of the audience to hear from them what they anticipated and what they got from the mesmeric and transporting music.

Richter's partner Yulia, who co-produces the concerts and who is clearly a creative force to be reckoned with - Richter calls her the brains of the outfit - features as we learn about their relationship, their creative partnership and meet their delightful children, but it is Richter himself who is the star of the show.

Born in Germany but raised in the home counties of England, Richter has one of those voices that you could listen to for hours, not least because what he says is so insightful but also because it's so gentle and the tone is so pleasant. He's very soothing.

In fact, the whole film is very calm, as you might expect.

There's a surprising amount of science involved in the thinking behind Max Richter's Sleep - he worked with a neuroscientist to understand the different stages and what was happening to our brains so he could mimic or lie alongside the natural rhythms and processes and try and find musical language to express it.

It's not often that you come across a documentary that you know you'll want to watch over and over again, often documentaries are on pretty harrowing topics, but Max Richter's Sleep reminds us of the quite delightful power human beings have to dream up ideas and make them reality.

It's going to be some time before I will get the chance to experience Max Richter's Sleep in person - if I ever do - so for now this wonderful documentary will have to do.

Max Richter's SLEEP is rated PG and is streaming at DocPlay.com now.