What becomes a documentary most? Time, perhaps, the luxury to study and shoot the subject over a period long enough to transform your film from a snapshot to a moving picture. In the case of IAm Not a Rock Star, that luxury is a necessity, since the focus here – like Michael Apted’s 7 Up series or Nikita Mikhalkov’s Anna – is on the growth and development of a child. Like all children, this girl is unique. Unlike most, she’s also uniquely gifted: Marika Bournaki is a piano prodigy.
Director Bobbi Jo Hart’s camera tracks her through the entirety of teenagedom’s turbulent course, from 12 all the way to 20. Yes, classical music abounds – Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Bach – and it’s an aural delight. No doubt, better educated ears than mine will appreciate the maturing of Marika’s technique, her evolution from prodigy to professional, raw talent acquiring its hard-earned polish. But that is not really Hart’s purpose here. Instead, she sets herself a much more sensitive task – weaving the special circumstances of this particular teenage into the common fabric of every teenager.
It proves to be fascinating exercise, with stops at approximately two-year intervals. First, then, the self-assured 12-year-old: Marika, in her native Montreal, switching effortlessly from French to English and back again; Marika, in New York, already blasé at Carnegie Hall (“I played there two times already”).
Her mom is non-musical, proud of her daughter’s precocious achievements but equally devoted to her other kids. Rather, Marika’s stage mother is her father, an aspiring violinist whose own career stalled. He’s the chauffeur, the fixer, the booker of flights and the soother of tantrums. The guy seems genial yet firm, not a haranguing stereotype but clearly determined that she will succeed where he failed.
At 14, her teeth require braces and, suddenly, so does that self-assurance. Tearfully, Marika bids adieu to home and heads off for intensive study at New York’s The Juilliard School. It’s no coincidence that Hart’s previous doc looked at young women on the pro tennis circuit: The comparison to callow elite athletes, also plucked from their family and shipped away for superior coaching, cries out. Soon, the lens catches Marika at 16, nominally self-sufficient in her cramped Manhattan apartment, although her strewn clothes and half-joking aside suggest otherwise: “I suck at life.”
A year later, enter the boyfriend, a fellow student. In the first of two lovely duet scenes, Hart shows them seated at the same piano, playing and flirting in gorgeous harmony. Over in London with dad for a crucial recital, the harmony breaks down. Marika, both the teen and the artist, is in full diva mode. It’s raining, she’s smoking, and once easy questions, “What do you enjoy about being a concert pianist?” now prompt only an uneasy answer, “Nothing. I could bullshit, but that’s about it. … I am not a rock star.”
At 18, she returns home to find it doesn’t exist. Her parents are divorcing and her mother is quite willing to isolate at least one cause: “The piano, in my opinion, has had a huge impact in our home.”
From there, the last leg of the journey feels a bit rushed. A montage quickly establishes her international prowess, touring Korea and Russia. The final destination, however, is the most revealing. It’s the second of those lovely duets. Here, though, Marika is seated at the Steinway with a little girl, doubtless another prodigy. On the last note, they rise together to face the audience with clasped hands. Beaming down at the child, Marika smiles a radiant smile and, in that moment, regains at 20 what she had at 12 – self-assurance, but this time the enduring brand.