A crowd gathered this weekend at Central Piedmont Community College’s Tate Hall to see south Charlotte resident and ragtime pianist Ethan Uslan, perform live before a sold-out screening of “The Entertainers,” a documentary in which he stars.
After playing a rousing rendition of “The Maple Leaf Rag,” Uslan introduced the film, the lights went down and then something wonderful happened – the movie wouldn’t play.
As the technicians fumbled in the dark to restart the show, Uslan re-entered the stage to applause and improvised an ominous tune, reminiscent of the silent movie accompaniment he is known for playing monthly at Petra’s Piano Bar (Plaza Midwood). The crowd laughed and begged for more as the men in black got the movie on track.
“The Entertainers” follows six piano players vying to win the World Championship of Old-Time Piano, a yearly competition held every May in Peoria, Ill. Filmmakers Michael Zimmer and Nick Holle document their pursuit of playing perfection as judges shrewdly look for the ultimate mix of showmanship and technique.
“(Ragtime pioneer) Eubie Blake said that the best way to learn ragtime was to first learn it how the composer intended for it to be played, then do it the way you want to,” wrote ragtime historian Bill Edwards, a cast member of
“The Entertainers.” “The music provides a template for performance … and encourages improvisation.”
“It might be better to play something safer I know I can nail, but… ” said Uslan, whose complex arrangements are exhilarating to watch but sometimes dangerously difficult. “It’s more fun for me.”
Press materials for the film have deemed Uslan as “The Innovator” for his “show-stopping pieces.” Uslan, who studied piano in high school and at Indiana University, makes music full time in Charlotte. He was featured on “A Prairie Home Companion” in 2007, the same year he won the World Championship. “The Entertainers” started filming in 2008.
The film features five others: Jim Boston, “The Spirit,” whose struggles to pay rent and practices piano in church basements; Four Arrows, a Native American academic who can’t read music; Faye Ballard, the “First Lady” of the competition determined to beat the boys; “Perfessor” Bill Edwards, a computer programmer and 19-time finalist; and Adam Swanson, “The Prodigy” at 17 years old who beat Uslan by a single point in 2008.
“The Entertainers” follows the 2009 competition to the rematch of Uslan and Swanson.
The thrilling conclusion of “The Entertainers” can be seen On Demand at https://vimeo.com/ond emand/theentertainers. The film, which has garnered several awards and impressive accolades on the festival circuit, plays in special presentations around the country. Uslan will host another screening on Sept. 10 in his home state of New Jersey. For more information, go to www.theentertainersmovie.com.
For all but one competitor featured in “The Entertainers,” the heartbreak of losing is inevitable, but the joy of performing piano endures. The same energy that brings everyone back to Peoria each year brought the audience to their feet when Uslan closed Sunday’s performance with his ragtime version of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”
To learn more about Uslan, his music and a possible Charlotte encore for “The Entertainers,” go to www.uslanmusic.com.