When the 17-minute film “What Cheer?” appears on Short of the Week on June 17, it will mark more of a victory lap than a debut. The film has already shown at more than 25 festivals, and taken home an armful of awards, including “Best of New York” at the 2014 NY Shorts Fest. It also caught the eye of the Polish eyewear company Massada, which bankrolled a subsequent short from 33-year-old co-writer and director, Michael Slavens.
“What Cheer?” stars Richard Kind (“Spin City,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “A Serious Man,” Pixar’s forthcoming “Inside Out”) as Stan, a musical theater composer whose wife passes away abruptly at the couple’s Manhattan brownstone. The title sequence rolls as a rabbi recites the Mourners’ Kaddish. From that point on, Stan is hounded by a 20-piece punk marching band (the Rhode Island-based What Cheer? Brigade) that only he sees and hears. Stan’s affliction starts with two WCB members playing trumpet and sousaphone at the cemetery, after the funeral. In the following days, the entire band — crashing cymbals, blasting horns — is inside his bedroom, following him down the street, and chasing him through Central Park. When Stan covers his ears, the music only gets louder.
The film has an effortless polish and poignancy that belies an intricate backstory. For years, Slavens wanted to produce a project starring the WCB, after having “the most fun I’ve ever had at a concert” when he first saw them in New York. From there, it took an intense break-up — and the ensuing daze — to spark the idea of a film about a character wracked by mental noise embodied onscreen by the band. Then, when he described the script to Kind (whom he knew through a regular card game among actors, comedians, and filmmakers) the actor loved the idea, and asked for a cameo. Once Kind was on board, Slavens knew he couldn’t just give him a cameo; he would make him the star. “You don’t have to do very much to make Richard Kind likable,” he said. “The guy’s face — it does all the work, you know?”
And so Slavens rewrote the script with Kind in mind, changed the main character’s trauma from a breakup to the death of a spouse, and during one hectic, humid week in 2012, shot the film with a budget he describes as “more than I wanted to spend.” The investment seems to have been worth it. The film’s laurels include a Filmmakers’ Favorite Award at the 2014 DC Shorts Fest and an Audience Choice Award from the San Jose International Short Film Festival. In a phone interview with the Forward, Kind called the film a “wonderful story, beautiful told.”
So, is it a Jewish film? In the first scene, as Stan fumbles for the right lyric during a composing session, he angrily sings the word “putz.” And Stan’s wife’s funeral is clearly a Jewish affair. But Slavens, who grew up in a reform household in Toronto, says he didn’t set out to make a religious film. He simply wrote what he knew.
But he adds, “In what world does Richard Kind live that he’s not Jewish?“