Leslie Simmer &
GORDON QUINN (DIRECTOR, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER) is the Artistic and co-founder of Kartemquin Films, where over the past 50+ years he has helped hundreds of documentary filmmakers advance their projects forward and been a leading champion of the rights of all documentary filmmakers. He is the 2015 recipient of the International Documentary Association Career Achievement Award and was a key leader in creating the Documentary Filmmakers Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use. His credits as director and producer include films as diverse and essential as '63 Boycott (2017), Inquiring Nuns (1966), Golub (1988), and A Good Man (2011), and as executive producer include Academy-Award nominated films Minding the Gap (2018), Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016), Hoop Dreams (1994), and the Emmy Award-winning The Interrupters (2011), The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), The Homestretch (2014), and Life Itself (2014), and the acclaimed limited series The New Americans (2003) and Hard Earned (2015).
A prodigious musician, Norman Malone at age 10 was attacked by his father and left paralyzed on his right side. Nevertheless, he became an influential high school music teacher and now, at age 80, belatedly has launched his career as a concert pianist. FOR THE LEFT HAND raises issues that I have dealt with in earlier films: disability, poverty, race, and the role of the artist in our democracy. But these are not the main reasons we are telling Malone’s story; nor are we trying to be inspirational. I'm drawn to Norman's story because he is a man with a life in music who in his senior years has reinvented his career and found a new place for himself in the community. Norman does not write the music, but he is now playing for new audiences and interacting with composers to write works for him. FOR THE LEFT HAND affords us a way of reaching audiences not only on screen but also via Malone’s live concerts.
For the Left Hand
At age 10, aspiring pianist Norman Malone is paralyzed on his right side after being attacked by his father. Over the next several decades he masters the left-hand repertoire in secret, before a chance discovery of his talent leads him towards making his concert debut. Aged 78, he will perform the greatest work in the canon: Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
The co-directors live and work in Chicago (at Kartemquin). Our main subject, Norman Malone, lives in Hyde Park and taught in the CPS for over 30 years. One of our producers, Howard Reich, wrote for the Chicago Tribune for over 30 years. Diane Quon, born and raised in Chicago.
Sometimes I think of a motivational poster common in elementary school classrooms across the country and get mad. You know the one. “Reach for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” It’s important to inspire children, of course, and to tell them that when they grow up, hard work can open doors and create opportunities. But I missed the part of the inspirational quote that mentioned the reality that sometimes life circumstances can get in the way of your dreams. It must’ve been on the back. I don’t think that Norman Malone read the back of that poster either. At age 79, Norman makes his symphony debut playing with the West Hartford Symphony Orchestra. He performs Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, a piece that he practiced for sixty years. Let me say that again. Norman Malone had practiced Ravel’s Left Handed Concerto EVERY SINGLE DAY for the last 60 years. He states that “practice is his daily prayer” and to that, I am in awe. I don’t do anything every day. Even brushing my teeth. As an Actor I struggle with the belief in myself. I’m generally a confident person but for some reason the thing that I love the most, makes me the most vulnerable. Chalk that up to small fish vs big fish competition, messages from my youth about making sure I have a stable income, or the fact that sometimes I must puff up my chest so I feel that I fit in when around other actors. I had hoped that this lack of confidence in my art would wither away with age, but at 41, it has not. If I had the tenacity of Norman Malone however, maybe I’d be further along in my career. The biggest difference between myself and Norman Malone however is that I just wanted to fill my ego and be famous on Saturday Night Live. Norman Malone…he played the piano in order to survive. He refused to let his gift be silenced even after paralysis took his right hand. Even after schools turned him away. And even after teachers refused to work with a one handed pianist. Not playing the piano, was not an option. You see, when a dream is big enough and the desire strong enough, you pursue that dream for the personal fulfillment of your soul. When your dream, becomes your calling, it doesn’t matter your life circumstances. You find a way to succeed. And overcome. And move forward, in the ways that you are able. Now for me, I’ve come to accept that dreams can change and priorities shift. That there is only so much time left in my day and once I get home from work, I want to hang out with my dog and my partner. Usually in that order. I’m not interested in staying up late to hit an open mic night or leaving the house after dark to attend rehearsals. But mostly, I’m not interested is using the extra energy that is needed to build up my self esteem from a career that invites so much rejection. I need a break. Hopefully, my dream is just on pause. Or maybe I will grieve it completely. I don’t know. But I do know that if my passion resurfaces, I will use the words that Norman Malone said to himself when his insecurities started to creep in. “You got this far. You keep going.”