Hawaii-born Jake Shimabukuro, known worldwide for his mastery of the ukulele, was given the instrument at the age of four by his musically inclined single working mother. Preoccupied with the instrument through his youth, he experimented within beyond the mainlander pre-conceived notion of it as a kitschy plaything, experimenting with rock, jazz, blues and even classical music within its limited range.
In his teen years, Shimabukoro formed a small band known as Pure Heart, which garnered an unexpected level of success with their first album—recorded as a demo for potential restaurant and mall gigs—leading to multiple local awards and notoriety. Of note was Shimabukoro's intensely complex finger work and astoundingly fast playing.
With an array of talking head first person interviews with the virtuoso, his mother and a handful of people that have worked with him, Life on Four Strings outlines these details with cool, factual optimism. Some comments are made about Jake's isolated childhood, spending most of his time with his instrument while his mother worked two jobs to make ends meet but otherwise, this documentary plays out more so as a promotional puff piece than as a deconstruction and exploration of a highly talented man.
Though hearing about his YouTube successes and collaborations with Jimmy Buffett and Bette Midler are interesting, the documentary loses focus when it meanders into discussing the Japanese Tsunami, which was particularly tragic for his Japanese manager. Seemingly, it's there to assert Shimabukoro's compassionate spirit, but since we hear only wonderful things about him throughout this highly superficial and hagiographic work, it acts as little more than heavy-handed filler.
Fortunately, there's an abundance of ukulele-playing by the subject, which is nothing short of riveting and impressive.
Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings screens on Saturday November 10th, 2012 at 6:30pm at the Royal. (Independent)