Learning to Drum — and Live — in 'The Visitor' In Tom McCarthy's film, the protagonist finds solace and a new enthusiasm when he learns to play the djembe. For the movie's leading men, learning the instrument was a way of pushing their own boundaries.
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Learning to Drum — and Live — in 'The Visitor'

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Learning to Drum — and Live — in 'The Visitor'

Learning to Drum — and Live — in 'The Visitor'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89562654/89583909" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of music)


This is music from the new film "The Visitor" which opens this weekend.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Combination of despair, classical piano, and the rhythmic West African drum is like a summary of "The Visitor's" plot. The main characters are an immigrant from Syria whose big passion in life is his girlfriend and drumming. The straight-laced older white man who learns to let go through music.

As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, "The Visitor" shows what can happen when two people from different worlds come together.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Walter Vale is a global economics professor at a college in Connecticut. He's a widower whose late wife was a concert pianist. He's trying to connect with his grief by taking piano lessons himself.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

BLAIR: And not getting very far…

(Soundbite of movie, "The Visitor")

Mr. RICHARD JENKINS (Actor): (As Walter Vale) Learning an instrument at your age is difficult, especially if you don't possess a natural gift for it.

BLAIR: That doesn't help Walter's already sullen mood. He goes to his old apartment in New York City and finds a young immigrant couple living there through a real estate scam. Eventually they become friends, especially Walter and the boyfriend, Tarek, a Syrian who plays the West African drum, the djembe. Tarek teaches Walter to play.

Mr. HAAZ SLEIMAN (Actor): (As Tarek Khalil) Walter, I know you are a very smart man, but with a drum you have to remember not to think. Thinking just screws it up. Okay?

Mr. JENKINS: (As Walter Vale) Okay.

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Now, give it a couple of bangs.

(Soundbite of drumming)

Mr. SLEIMAN: (As Tarek Khalil) Not so hard, you're not angry at it.

Mr. JENKINS (As Walter): Okay. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of banging on drum)

BLAIR: The contrast between the drum and the piano is almost a metaphor for what happens to Walter through the course of "The Visitor" says screenwriter, Tom McCarthy.

Mr. TOM MCCARTHY (Writer, Director, "The Visitor"): Here's a guy who starts off with an interest in the classical piano and it obviously is tied into his wife who has since passed away and it's his journey from this sort of, at least at this point, this heady instrument that he can't seem to get the hang of to this African drum, to the djembe. It's sort of the difference in instruments. I mean the drum is something you can just - you don't even have to be good at it. It can just be a sort of cathartic experience. You can really commit to it.

BLAIR: But first, you have to learn to play it.

Mr. SLEIMAN: I actually never had touched the drums in my life. But maybe the singing helped me a little bit with the rhythm and the timing.

BLAIR: Actor Haas Sleiman, who's originally from Lebanon says it was easy to connect with his character.

Mr. SLEIMAN: Tarek's path - like he moved from Syria to Michigan and then from Michigan to New York to pursue music, and I did exactly the same only like from Lebanon to Michigan and then to New York to pursue as a recording artist, so I thought that was like one of those things where you think like the planets are aligned in some way.

BLAIR: To learn how to play the djembe, Sleiman spent several weeks taking daily lessons from a professional musician from Ghana. What was the first thing that you learned on the drum? And I'd love it if you could demonstrate.

Mr. SLEIMAN: It's pretty much actually the beat that I teach Richard in that scene.

(Soundbite of movie "The Visitor")

(Soundbite of beating on drum)

Mr. SLEIMAN: So that's - that would be it. It's a very simple beat as you can tell.

BLAIR: Some might say deceptively simple. Good drummers make it sound easy, but Richard Jenkins, who plays Walter, the older white guy, says he played drums for about five years when he was a teenager and never felt he played well.

Mr. JENKINS: I never got it out of my head as a drummer, you know, I never - I was still always counting, and I wasn't getting any better, so I stopped.

BLAIR: Richard Jenkins says he too has a lot in common with his character. He says he's not very adventurous and needs to be pushed to try new things. In The Visitor, music has a freeing quality for Walter Vale, like when the young Tarek insists that he listen to the Afro-pop star Fela Kuti.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JENKINS: When I saw the film, I could almost see me relax when the Fela music started.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: Throughout The Visitor, Walter Vale often looks like a fish out of water. In one scene, he musters up enough courage to play in a drum circle in New York City's Central Park.

(Soundbite of drumming)

BLAIR: With his button-down shirt and tie, and a tense look on his face, he sits in a line of musicians, all looking joyful dressed in African clothes or t-shirts and jeans. But once he starts playing, Walter blends right in.

(Soundbite of drumming)

BLAIR: In many ways The Visitor is a movie about taking a leap of faith, whether it's moving to a new country, befriending someone from a different class or culture, or learning a new instrument. Screenwriter Tom McCarthy says to take that leap, you need to get out of your comfort zone.

Mr. MCCARTHY: I think the key is always - honestly as Tarek's character says in the film, to get out of your head, don't think. So I think this movie has a little bit about music allowing someone to drop down out of their head and into their body and into their life.

BLAIR: But that doesn't mean things end up well for any of the characters in The Visitor. It's also a story about the precarious existence of immigrants in America.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And Tom McCarthy talks about researching immigration and the composer whose music he used in "The Visitor" at npr.org/movies.

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