VOD film review: Max Richter’s Sleep
Ivan Radford | On 13, Sep 2020
Director: Natalie Johns
Cast: Max Richter
Watch Max Richter’s Sleep online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Sky Store
Max Richter is one of the most interesting composers working today, from his film scores to his dazzling reworking of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. In 2015, he produced perhaps his most distinctive work: an eight-hour composition called Sleep, designed to be listened to, well, while sleeping. This fascinating, beautiful documentary follows the performance of that documentary live in Los Angeles.
The sight itself is something to behold: a nighttime concert where, instead of chairs, audiences are invited to rock up and take a camping bed for themselves. There, they can sit up, recline and relax, experiencing the music however they want. Turn up, tune in, doze off. Director Natalie Johns captures this with a gentle camera that glides between the beds, soaking up the unusual ambience with a slow, patient pace.
That speed is no coincidence, as we hear from Richter how Sleep is partly conceived as a counterpoint to the hectic nature of modern life. The music, which swells, quietens, soars and whispers, is designed to move in parallel with the way that brain patterns swirl and change during a night’s sleep – not unlike the way that nature sometimes follows the Fibonacci Sequence.
If reflecting on the relationship between neuroscience and audio sounds soporific to you, what’s impressive about the documentary is that it never descends into dull territory; this is a gorgeously contemplative affair that balances a wealth of information and commentary with human insight. The latter comes from a welcome decision to give screentime to audience members recalling their experience of the slumber party, which gives some tangible evidence to back up the aims and achievements of the epic.
Max, meanwhile, is on hand to talk about the endeavour, from the challenge of performing the thing – which is coordinated to allow sections to have breaks throughout the evening – to the difficulty of making it in the first place. Ironically, Richter lost a lot of sleep to make it happen, as he talks candidly about the challenge of earning enough income to support his family in the daytime and doing this at night.
Johns also zooms out to include his partner Yulia Mahr, a BAFTA-winning filmmaker who also weighs in creatively and on a practical level. The result is an interesting portrait of an artist, and the artist who supports him, but also a unique combination of curious experiment and calming soundscape. Throughout, Max discusses the whole idea with a passion that’s engaging and a frank, unpretentious nature that makes the film accessible to anyone, whether they like classic music or not. A peaceful movie, yes, but also an eye-opener.