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‘Lifecasters’ presents stories of life’s second act

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“The odds of me composing a symphony were one in a hundred thousand. It’s never been done before like this.” – Alby Hurwit, composer, retired radiologist.

Sometimes you get a second chance in life. In “Lifecasters,” a new film for PBS from executive producers Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, the duo behind 2009’s award winning documentary “The Way We Get By,” we meet three very different people who attempt to beat the odds and realize their true purpose later in life.

In 2011, following the success of their film about the Maine Troop Greeters, Gaudet and Pullapilly were approached by the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) of San Francisco to collaborate on a film project for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). “They had about 200 applications from high-caliber, award-winning filmmakers, and of those, three were chosen for ‘pilot mode’ including us,” Pullapilly explained from the duo’s home studio in Bar Harbor.

Over the course of 60 minutes, “Lifecasters” presents three compelling short films, each profiling a person who overcame personal obstacles to realize a dream. “We found each of the filmmaking teams and got them on board,” Gaudet told me. “Basically, we were curators, matching the filmmakers with the subjects and making sure the vision that we had going in was the same vision with the end result,” Pullapilly said.

“Lifecasters” opens with “Sheri Sparkle,” a film by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, which profiles professional dancer Sheri “Sparkle” Williams of Dayton, Ohio, one of the oldest professional dancers in the United States. Williams’s story is one of endurance and determination. “She’s been at the same dance company since she was a teenager, and now she’s 50 years old,” Gaudet says. “She’s surrounded by young people at this dance company where she takes care of the physical fitness. They can’t keep up with her. Within her story, she suffers a very painful career-threatening injury and has to figure out if she can overcome it.”

The second act in “Lifecasters” is Gaudet and Pullapilly’s film, “The Gambling Man,” which introduces Albert “Alby” Hurwit, a retired Connecticut radiologist who has lived most of his life with an endless stream of melodies trapped inside of him. A self-taught pianist, Hurwit set out to write the symphony he has been hearing in his mind since he was a teenager.

“When you hear Alby’s story, you wonder “How does that happen? How did he do that?” Gaudet told me. “He couldn’t read or write music, yet in his late ‘70s, he composed an award-winning symphony. I asked the musician who created the opening music for ‘Lifecasters,’ “If you don’t write for a while and you have this musical idea in your head, are you sort of itching to get it out?” and she said, “If I have an idea in my head for even a couple of days, it would bother me not to get it out there.” To think that Alby went 60 years or so with this music in his head and when he finally did write it, all of these tunes came out. In the film, those who know compared him to Irving Berlin as someone who is like a fountain of melodies, and that’s exactly what he is.”

Wayne Kramer and his wife Margaret are “The Beast and the Angel,” a short film from Adam McKay and Shira Piven that appears as the third segment in “Lifecasters.” Kramer is best known as former lead guitarist for 1960s Detroit-based revolutionary punk rock prototypes MC5.

Gaudet says that one of the goals of “Lifecasters” was to pair each subject with the right filmmakers. “Gita had connected with Wayne’s wife,” he told me. “Margaret does music clearance for films and TV shows. It just so happened that Adam and Shira happened to be great friends with Wayne and Margaret, so that was a natural fit.”

In Kramer’s story, we see him through archival footage leading MC5 in an incendiary version of their signature song “Kick Out The Jams” juxtaposed with new footage detailing his eventual spiral into drug addiction and subsequent incarceration for selling cocaine. “Wayne hit rock bottom and then found new ways to go even lower,” Gaudet says. “To see where he is now, it’s amazing how he reinvented himself.”

Clean and sober since 1999, much of Kramer’s energy these days is directed toward going back to jail - this time with a truck full of guitars. He is one of the co-founders of Jail Guitar Doors, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing musical instruments to help rehabilitate prisoners and introduce them to a second act in life through music.

Kramer is scheduled to join Gaudet and Pullapilly along with Sheri “Sparkle” Williams, Alby Hurwit and their respective filmmakers during a world premiere screening at the Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York City on Feb. 6 hosted by actor Jeremy Piven. The event will include a live performance from Kramer. “It’s a rare event when your program is selected for recognition by the Lincoln Center,” Pullapilly told me. “With the caliber of programming there, it’s very exciting that they are taking this program on and presenting this premiere.”

PBS will air “Lifecasters” beginning Thursday, Feb. 7 at 9 p.m. EST. At that time, the program will also stream at www.PBS.org and will be available for later viewing on the website following the broadcast. “Lifecasters” is currently scheduled to air in Maine on MPBN on Sunday, April 7 at 3:30 p.m.

At its heart, “Lifecasters” is about endurance, perseverance, beating the odds and taking a second chance in life – something Gaudet and Pullapilly discovered at a relatively young age. Both gave up their careers in television news to realize their filmmaking dreams. “I think that’s why ‘Lifecasters’ resonated with us,” Pullapilly told me. “Because we felt like we’re trying to do this, and so far, things seem like they’re working out OK.”

Gaudet and Pullapilly are currently editing “Blue Potato,” an original coming-of-age drama filmed in Van Buren and due for release later this year.

“The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow” can be heard each morning on Big 104 – The Biggest Hits of the ’60s, ’70s & ’80s - airing on 104.3 FM, 104.7 FM and 107.7 FM.

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