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The Incredibly Talented Lucy review – a sparkling story, with an enraging twist ending
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The Incredibly Talented Lucy review – a sparkling story, with an enraging twist ending

The makers of Channel 4’s reality/talent show The Piano probably thought they had a hit on their hands when they coined the format, but the moment they knew they had cracked it must have been when they found Lucy, a 13-year-old girl from Halifax, West Yorkshire. Blind, neurodivergent and given to throwing her head from side to side during performances in the manner of Stevie Wonder, Lucy was exactly what The Piano – which invited amateurs from around the country to play railway concourse pianos, then arranged for the best ones to do a gig at the Royal Festival Hall – was looking for.

Inevitably, Lucy now stars in a spin-off documentary where we learn more about her and see what happened next. We duly watch Lucy at home and at school, delight in hearing her play a lot more piano – Debussy, Duke Ellington, Bach – and are introduced to her wonderful, loving mother and the teachers and classroom assistants who encourage her every day in matters besides music. But The Incredibly Talented Lucy is not primarily a film about Lucy. It’s about Daniel.

Daniel is Lucy’s music teacher and has been for more than a decade; viewers of The Piano saw him guide her to the keyboard and watch tenderly over her as she performed. He taught Lucy by placing his hands on hers to show how to turn the music in her head into a sound others could hear, giving a girl with limited speech access to a priceless, boundless means of self-expression. We see how important their relationship is to Lucy in her use of Daniel’s name: “Daniel!” she says when reminded of an upcoming lesson. “Daniel!” she exclaims, when they meet. “Daniel!” is the cry when playing a piece brings her joy.

Jittery and a little dishevelled but sparkling when Lucy plays well, which she usually does, Daniel is the archetype of the obsessively dedicated music teacher. We see him valiantly pursuing the hopeless task of conducting a school orchestra who sound like a fire in a bagpipe shop; more rewardingly, he also has one-on-ones with kids who have disabilities or challenges similar to Lucy’s, and who are lighting up under his tutelage, just as she does.

We also speak to Daniel’s concerned wife, who worries about the unsustainable amount of extra hours he works every week, because he knows these kids need him. The funding required to meet their needs properly is long gone. During filming, the final episode of The Piano is broadcast – when Daniel is interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live, he makes sure to crowbar in a plea for more money for musical education for all. Later in the show, Daniel opens up about the toll the responsibility he places on himself has taken in the past: he, it turns out, was not Lucy’s saviour. They were each other’s.

Lucy Illingworth playing pianoView image in fullscreen

If their bond is pseudo-parental, Daniel is honest about the challenge that poses. While his own jazz trio plays to handfuls of people in Halifax, he is guiding someone who could become a celebrated concert pianist. He is keen that Lucy be moulded into a serious musician, not “an exhibit” – the problem is whether this will be more rewarding for her, or for him. At home, Lucy has learned to make a smart speaker play the sound of a cheering crowd, but she cannot as yet articulate how much performing in public on a regular basis would mean to her. Around halfway through documentaries like this, there is often a low-key triumph to set us up for a bigger one later on, but here a gig where Lucy subs in for Daniel in his trio is derailed by her playing when she wants to, which isn’t always when the drummer and bassist expect.

“I project my musical life on to Lucy, that’s the problem,” a distraught Daniel says backstage. The thwarted adult living vicariously through a gifted child is, however, a problem we trust this sensitive man to work through successfully, as is the fact that Lucy’s own musical life cannot realistically be lived in its entirety with Daniel at her elbow, painful as this is for him to admit.

The finale is Lucy’s appearance by invitation of the royal family, to play the Coronation gig at Windsor Castle in May 2023. Minutes before she walks on to the stage, there is a twist that the writer of any future Lucy movie will not need to finesse; it calls back to the theme of her growing up and leaving Daniel behind while also hinting quietly at something rotten and enraging in our society, enhancing the underlying motif of the nation’s Daniels and Lucys being stomped on and left behind. They need and deserve more help than a heartwarming documentary can provide.

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Source: theguardian.com