Musician focus of local filmmaker’s MSPIFF film fest entry

‘Laurel Massé: How Can I Keep From Singing’ took nearly two decades

A film that has been long in the making will premiere during the Minneapolis Saint Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) running April 11-25 at the Main Cinema, 115 SE Main in Minneapolis.
Local filmmaker Reilly Tillman has crafted a long and growing connection with a member of the vocal jazz group, the Manhattan Transfer, into a film that explores her early career, her time with the group, the challenges she has faced and the redeeming qualities of her voice and perseverance.
Tillman has footage that he started shooting 18 and a half years ago to create the documentary “Laurel Massé: How Can I Keep From Singing?”
“My first exposure to the Manhattan Transfer was when I was a freshman in high school,” Tillman recalled in a recent interview. “Their song, Single Operator, was playing in the top 20. I loved that song but did not explore the group any further.” In his junior year, Tillman was part of a swing choir that did a version of “Java Java,” a song from the Manhattan Transfer’s first album. In college, Tillman said he was visiting a friend and heard someone playing their album. “I couldn’t believe I had not discovered how great they were,” Tillman said. “I ran out and purchased the album and found that all the members of the group were fantastic singers with a distinctive style. Laurel’s solos, the purity of her voice, and the lushness of her tone resonated with me. I started reading about them and found that Laurel had left the Manhattan Transfer. It was not until five years later that I found a copy of her first solo album in New York. Then I was really hooked.”
That summer, Massé performed at a jazz club in Minneapolis half a block from Tillman’s home. By this time he had attended enough of her concerts that she recognized him, and she joined him and a friend at their table. “I thought ‘Okay, now we are friends.’”
Tillman completed his first documentary film on a drum and bugle corps.
“In 2004, I was looking for a new project,” Tillman said. 
“I had bought some of Laurel’s CDs, and her tour de force solo album called ‘Feather an Bone.’ It was mostly a Capella, recorded in a beautiful music hall in upstate New York. She sang ancient hymns and spirituals, mostly unfamiliar songs. It was different from what she had done. She took poems and put them to music. The very last song had bagpipe music, and at one point Laurel sang like a bagpipe. She vocalized to sound like an instrument. “
Tillman said he started thinking that Laurel, her life and music would be a wonderful subject for his next film. “I knew her music and career and a lot of her story, so I sent her a copy of my first film, and she was just on board. It took no additional coaxing,” Tillman said.
He started shooting in 2005 at her home in New York. Tillman was introduced to her friends Jay Unger and Molly Mason, whom he called world-class American Roots musicians. “They run a summer music camp where Laurel teaches, and so in 2018, I went with her to the camp and spent a week filming.
“I thought it would make a nice foundation for the film to span the week’s activities in the camp throughout my film, but in different split-up segments. It gives it more apparent structure,” Tillman said.
He said Massé was a dream to interview. “I got so much interview footage.”
Tillman said he thinks the most challenging  parts of doing a documentary are knowing when to stop and doing the editing. He went through all the interviews and transcribed them, picking out the most significant. “It is quite a process,” he said.
“Today a film is never finished,” Tillman noted.“In the digital age you can make changes forever. You finally have to say ‘This is the finished product I will show to the world.’”
Tillman has acknowledged a proclivity to music-themed projects. His previous documentary is “Madison on Tour,” a film about a two-time world champion drum and bugle corps. Tillman joined a brass drum and bugle corps in Minnesota after he completed the film. “I have a lot of choral singing, musical theater, symphonic and marching experience in my background,” he said. Tillman graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.A. in communications with an emphasis in radio, TV and film. He is currently the deputy director and education director at Film North in Saint Paul.
“There is something to be said about filming what you know,” he commented. “Initially I was going to hire someone else to edit my film on Laurel, and this person helped me sort through the footage and was going to start editing, but was overwhelmed with work. I realized I knew Laurel so well, and her story so well, that of course I had to edit the documentary. And that worked out for the best.”
Tillman said he had to pick a subject for his films that will keep him so engaged and interested that he will not get tired of it. “I have to be willing to make sacrifices I would not normally make. With this film, I never get tired of  looking at the footage, and I am so grateful that is the case.” Tillman’s next steps with the film are to work on distribution. He said he plans to go through the BBC, since Manhattan Transfer was a superstar group in Great Britain and most of Europe.


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