Damn These Heels! Film Review: Empty Orchestra

Film Reviews

Empty Orchestra
Director: Nicole Hawkins

Screening online for Damn These Heels Festival starting October 15

Nicole Hawkins’ lovely documentary Empty Orchestra is about an underground karaoke club in Provo, Utah in the late 2010s. Boxcar Karaoke fosters a seemingly tight-knit, nomadic little community of characters floating just on the fringes of a mostly homogenous, Mormon college town, with their meetups alternately functioning as a bar, a support group and a quasi-religious congregation. But Empty Orchestra is about something more than a community of misfits thriving in a conservative religious enclave: Hawkins wisely focuses the narrative on conversations about the ever-shifting nature of communities and the individuals within them. 

The film’s opening moments linger on images of Mormon landmarks, hallmarks and trinkets photographed to evoke grainy, Super 8 film footage. This style of imagery has persevered as an evocative shorthand for tactile nostalgia even for audiences (and artists) who were born much too late to have any Super 8 videos of themselves. But film grain and hazy saturation can make images feel like memories, and memories are anyone’s most emotionally-charged belongings. 

As Empty Orchestra progresses, that vintage-feeling grain and haze are applied more and more to footage of Boxcar Karaoke’s members performing and spending treasured time together, visually placing their community in the same nostalgic and fuzzy space as the religious community that, for many of them, Boxcar has supplanted. It’s nice. It feels warmly iconoclastic.

Memory weaves all throughout Empty Orchestra: group members share the stories of how they came to the group, elaborate on specific song choices and the emotions behind them, and memorialize the atmosphere of the club’s past locations. Karaoke itself is shown to be a public exhibition of memory; nobody’s ever sung a karaoke song that they didn’t already know. Lyrics are presented, but the tune is always brought by the singer. The song a karaoke singer chooses is one whose melody is etched in memory within the singer’s heart.

The title Empty Orchestra is the direct translation of the word “karaoke” (kara being Japanese for “empty” and oke being a Japanization of the first two syllables of the English word “orchestra”). It’s a clever title to apply to the film’s subjects, highlighting people’s tendency to fill empty spaces with community and warmth. Above all else, Empty Orchestra is a tender and moving document of Boxcar Karaoke’s fondly shared memories. Melodies hold those memories, and memory holds the melodies in return. –Daniel Kirkham

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