When Melodious Accord, Inc., reached out to Charlottesville-based documentarian Eduardo Montes-Bradley and asked him to craft a film about the life of musician and composer Alice Parker, Montes-Bradley knew he had to meet Parker before he said yes.
He headed up to Boston, and the two drove together to Parker’s 17th-century New England cottage home, where Montes-Bradley pulled out his camera and asked her to describe her earliest memory. Parker told him of sitting on the floor by her mother as she played the piano. It sounded to Montes-Bradley like a picturesque description of an early 20th-century postcard.
“There is something absolutely magical about this person,” Montes-Bradley says. “I felt that I was running into my own grandmother. I felt enveloped by wisdom and love…when I saw her through the lens, I thought, ‘this is it. This is the person. This is my next movie.’”
The evening scene that Montes-Bradley shot in his very first meeting with his 95-year-old subject is cut throughout his latest film, Alice: At Home with Alice Parker, which will be shown at the festival beginning October 21. It’s the director’s latest in a long documentary career that took him from Buenos Aires to the University of Virginia’s Heritage Film Project.
Pinning Alice together is the music. Normally, Montes-Bradley doesn’t share his work until it’s finished, but this time he collaborated with Parker for her expert advice on the film’s score. He uses Parker’s own voice and compositions for most of the soundtrack, with the exception of a haunting underscore that is voiced by her late husband, Tom Pyle.
Pyle died in the ’70s, leaving Parker to raise five children alone. Around the time, Parker parted ways with her longtime mentor, conductor Robert Shaw.
“I believe that Alice Parker becomes Alice Parker when she traumatically detaches herself from the shadow of these two amazing men,” Montes-Bradley says. “She becomes the fabulous woman she is in a time of change in the world, and in America, with regards to women’s rights.”
The documentary was shot in February, meaning that Montes-Bradley pieced the work together in isolation. That unique process lends the film a warm kind of intimacy. Every shot of Parker’s gentle hands and gleaming eyes are proof of the connection Montes-Bradley found with her during this strange spring.
“I think what saved me from going insane during this quarantine early period was precisely my relationship to this subject,” Montes-Bradley says. “In the basement of my house in Charlottesville when I started editing…I had my conversations. The rest of my conversations with her, most of them happened in quarantine, with me in the basement and Alice on the screen.”
Parker is a prolific composer of everything from hymns to operas, and she set music to the words of everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Emily Dickinson. Alice reminds viewers that beyond the impact these works hold for the American choral scene, Parker is still a relatable human.
“The time that I took to do this, and the possibility to go deeper into those connections, allowed me to understand where she was coming from and the importance of her work, the relevance of her work,” Montes-Bradley says. “She connects us through music to some of the literary works of the first half of the century.”