In the documentary film Landfill Harmonic, music provides a beacon of hope to men, women and children seeking to overcome difficult circumstances. Directed by Brad Allgood, Graham Townsley and Juliana Penaranda-Loftus, now in limited theatrical release and streaming via Vimeo on-demand, the film tells the remarkable true story of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay. Led by their conductor, guitarist Favio Chavez, and with instruments meticulously constructed out of garbage and other materials found in the city’s landfills by garbage picker/craftsman Nicolas “Cola” Gomez, the orchestra’s young members were inspired and determined to pursue their previously unheard of dreams of playing music.
Soon, these musicians achieved an unexpected level of worldwide fame thanks to their live performances, including a memorable guest appearance in concert [in 2013] with the legendary heavy metal group Megadeth on their hit “Symphony of Destruction.” When their sudden rise was halted in the aftermath of deadly flooding back in Cateura, Chavez, Gomez and the young children who make up the Recycled Orchestra used their talents to persevere and persist through adversity the way they always have: through music and through each other.
Since its premiere at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, Landfill Harmonic has had a profound effect on both its audiences and its filmmakers. Perhaps its greatest impact, though, was felt by its composer, Michael A. Levine (Cold Case, Film U). Levine’s music for Landfill Harmonic underscores the journey of the Recycled Orchestra and features unique instrumentation compiled from disposed items found in his own trash bins. Along with the film’s incidental music, he and his daughter, Mariana Barreto, collaborated on Landfill Harmonic’s uplifting end title song, “Cateura: Vamos a Soñar (We Will Dream).” This past September, Levine performed the song live with members of the Recycled Orchestra and various young musicians from New York and New Jersey youth orchestras during a joint concert at New York’s Trinity Church. His score and several live performances by the orchestra will be on an upcoming soundtrack album set to debut early next year on J2 Records.
Chris Hadley: As a musician and a composer yourself, what was it about the story of the Recycled Orchestra that led you to compose for Landfill Harmonic?
Michael A. Levine: Well, I’m a firm believer in the transformative power of music. I think that music is one of the oldest languages of the human race. It may even predate spoken language. We don’t know, but it certainly co-evolved with it. It’s one of the ways that we manage to connect with each other and become stronger than any of us can be individually. These kids grow up in this incredibly hostile environment, where they have very few opportunities other than working on the landfill or worse. Through the power of music, and music played with each other, they have transformed their lives. This is very much a result of the vision of their conductor, Favio Chavez, who really saw this as an opportunity to not just bring music to the community, which of course he felt passionately about, but to assess the individuals involved so that they could, through their efforts of learning music and playing together, learn these essential life skills that have really aided them all.
I think it’s fascinating that some of the kids he started with 10 years ago are now graduating college, and not just in music. One’s a radiologist. These are opportunities that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, so to me that was a very inspiring story. It also paralleled my own feeling of the liberation that music provides for me in my own life. I’ve often said to people that the music business is untrustworthy, but music will never betray you.
CH: What sets your work on Landfill Harmonic apart from the other projects you’ve done for film, TV, concert and pop music?
MAL: Well, it’s an extension of what I’ve done in the past. I’ve always had eclectic interests, and I’ve always been interested in both the social issues that it represents and the sense of musical eclecticism. That was hard as an extension, but what’s different is that this is the first time I’ve ever done anything that’s based on Paraguayan traditional music. It’s the first time I’ve written something where there was a closing credit song in Spanish.
CH: How did you react upon seeing the film for the first time, both during production and during its premiere release?
MAL: Well, you can’t help but be inspired. I think you’d have to be the Scroogiest, Grinchiest personality to not hear this story and go, “Wow, that is really something.” People who have nothing achieving something like this. One of the things Favio says at the end of the film is, “Just because you have nothing, don’t let that be an excuse to do nothing,” and those of us in the first world who have an awful lot really have no excuse to do nothing. I found it very inspiring, and it resonated a lot with my personal beliefs.
When you finally see something on the big screen, it’s always a whole lot better than it is on your screen at home. I’ve got a pretty nice screen at home, but you’re working with stuff that’s got time code all over it. It’s not color corrected, the sound is all screwed up and so forth, and it always feels a little amateur. When you finally see the finished, sound balanced, color corrected big image, it’s pretty awesome, and it’s always inspiring. I will, however, say that I think the first thing I said to my assistant afterwards was, “Next time, I’ve got to mix the bells softer.”