Going into Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, I had no prior knowledge of Jake Shimabukuro, or his particular talents. An hour later I was not only online researching Shimabukuro’s catalogue of work, but also contemplating if I should include a ukulele on my Christmas list. While the film itself plays like a traditional documentary, there is no denying that Jake Shimabukuro is an extremely talented individual whose positive attitude is rather infectious.
The film starts off during the second stop on his West Coast tour. Despite receiving both critical and commercial success, Shimabukuro still cannot believe how fortunate he is to achieve what he has. Playing the ukulele since the age of four, Shimabukuro slowly became a household name in his native Hawaii. He even formed a band, Pure Heart, shortly after finishing high school. However, it was not until is his video “Ukulele Weeps” went viral on YouTube, one of the first viral videos on the then fledgling website, that Shimabukuro became a worldwide sensation.
From there Shimabukuro found himself performing with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Bette Midler. He even had people such as Bill Gates and Conan O’Brien singing his praises. This was a huge accomplishment for a man who once viewed the ukulele as a source of comfort after being deeply affected by his parents divorce as a youth. Eventually Shimabukuro found himself pushing the envelope on the perceived limitations of the ukulele. Besides being able to play at breakneck speed, Shimabukuro wrote his first two solo songs on an electric guitar first and then tried to mimic the exact sounds on his ukulele. Despite only having four strings to work with, his skills evolved to the point where he was playing everything from rock to classical music on his ukulele with the greatest of ease.
Director Tadashi Nakamura does a good job of portraying Shimabukuro as a guy who both loves creating music and enjoys teaching others the usefulness of the ukulele. As Shimabukuro points out in the film, the ukulele was viewed as a gimmick to many outside of Hawaii because of musicians like Tiny Tim. Jake Shimabukuro not only wanted to bring respectability back to instrument, but also show how the ukulele can bring people together.
If there is one flaw in Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings it is that the film feels a little too safe at times. Nakamura does not offer much insight into the personal side of Shimabukuro’s adult life. For example, Shimabukuro’s wife is rarely seen on screen. Aside from Shimabukuro commenting that he feels a little guilty for being able to travel doing what he loves, the film rarely digs deep. The most impactful moment in the film comes when Tadashi Nakamura takes a moment to focus on the tsunami ravished Sendai, Japan, the home town of Shimabukuro’s manager. As Shimabukuro plays his music for the survivors of the tsunami, Nakamura’s camera closes in on Shimabukuro’s manager as she struggles to make sense of the devastation.
It is moments like this that resonate the most as it show how music can comfort those even in the most unimaginable situations. It would have been nice if the film had a few more impactful moments like this. Although Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings plays things a little too safe, Shimabukuro is an interesting enough subject to take your mind off the films’ minor shortcomings. If you enjoy uplifting films with great music, then Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings is worth a look.
Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings is screening on Saturday November 10, 2012 at 6:30 pm at The Royal