‘For Once,’ band’s uplifting story to be told at home

For the past year, the Miami-based documentary For Once in My Life has charmed audiences nationally and internationally. Now it’s coming home with a debut in South Florida this weekend at Coral Gables Art Cinema.

“We’re all very excited to be able to premiere the film in the hometown and letting our own folks share the excitement and the optimism of the film,” said Lourdes Little, the film’s executive producer.

For Once in My Life follows the story of the Spirit of Goodwill band, which is composed solely of people with physical and developmental disabilities, all of whom make a living working at Goodwill Industries South Florida.

Most of the 30 members never played an instrument or sang with a group before they tried out. Javier Peña, who was hired to instruct the group, was surprised at just how quickly they were able to develop a jazzy big-band sound.

“Sometimes working with them is better than working with professional musicians,” Peña said, “because they are willing to be led.”

Management at Goodwill wanted to take the show on the road, Little said. But road trips have proved difficult.

“Because it’s such a large band, it’s hard to move them,” said Little, who is also the marketing vice president for Goodwill. “So we asked, ‘How can we get people to get a feel of the success of these people producing music?’”

They enlisted Jim Bigham, a local director who has worked on films such as Great Expectations and Body Heat, to direct a film about the group. With the cameras rolling, the band got its biggest break: an invitation to perform at the 2008 U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami.

The film documents the struggles of the band as the members try to learn the tricky melodies and dizzying rhythm of Gloria Estefan’s Conga. But the heart of the film lies in the glimpses the audience gets into the bandmates’ personal lives and their desire for independence.

During the course of the film, the audience peers into the trailer home where a back-up singer with mental disabilities is providing for her two older but lower-functioning siblings.

The lead singer, who lost his sight after his father dropped him on the head as a child, separates his junk mail from the important stuff and does his own laundry. Two members of the rhythm section fall in love.

The documentary has won audience awards at film festivals in Port Townsend, Wash., and Sarasota. It has also been shown at festivals in New York, Los Angeles and even Warsaw, Poland.

In February, the film will be broadcast nationally on Public Television. Until then, it’s playing at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave. Tickets are $5 and are available at the box office and online.


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