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The documentary film about traveling classical musicians titled “Freeway Philharmonic” is now out on DVD. Filmmaker Tal Skloot first heard the phrase "Freeway Philharmonic" 20 years ago, when he was sharing a house with a bunch of freelance musicians in Santa Cruz, California. With paying gigs in locations that were often separated by hundreds of miles, the players had unofficially dubbed themselves the Freeway Philharmonic. The term is used to describe classical players who, not having a permanent full-time position, spend more time in their cars driving to or from a performance than they spend playing music.

"That name, Freeway Philharmonic, it stuck with me," says Skloot, who trained as a classical guitarist, but traded the freelance-musician life for the somewhat more stable existence of a freelance documentary maker. "I thought it might make a great name for a movie, and several years ago, when I decided to make a documentary about these freeway musicians, it was the obvious title for the film."

Freeway Philharmonic-now out on DVD after snagging some major airplay on public television stations, and earning screen spots in a number of film festivals-was filmed for just over $70,000. A labor of love for Skloot and producer Steven Baigel, the film tells the stories of seven San Francisco Bay Area musicians who crisscross Northern California on a daily basis, logging thousands of miles in their struggle to make a living as professional players.

"Since this film came out," says Skloot, who shot more than 100 hours of footage over three years, "I've been getting calls from all over the country from other members of the Freeway Philharmonic, or whatever they call them in the area they hail from. 'Driving for Dollars' is one other term I've heard. Sometimes it's just 'The Freeway Circuit.' I've heard from lots of players who've wanted to see the film and share it with their friends-and tell me their own road stories. It's not just a Bay Area thing. There are plenty of musicians who spend huge parts of their lives in their cars."

Skloot whittled down his cast from 50 players. "Each of these characters-I just found them all fascinating. They all had so much to say."

One of the more memorable characters in the film is Berkeley cellist Robin Bonnell, whose on-camera tirades (aimed at bad drivers), giddy claims of knowing every freeway shortcut in Northern California, and near-spiritual sense of focus when playing the cello make him an especially entertaining subject.

"I was pleased to participate in it," Bonnell says of being featured so prominently in the film. "My stipulation to TaI was that I not end up looking like an idiot, and I don't think I did. I think I came out rather well."

Bonnell currently holds contracts with seven different ensembles, spread out across Berkeley, Napa, Monterey, Marin County, and Reno. He occasionally takes gigs with the Skywalker Symphony in Marin, and other ensembles. "I'm on the road a lot," he laughs. "I hope [Freeway Philharmonic] raises awareness for people who see the movie. It would be nice if people knew everything we go through so that they can sit there for two hours of beautiful music. It needs to be seen by more people."

Bonnell admits that since the film came out, he's been approached by several folks who ask about his teeth, which-as a freelancer with no health insurance-are of concern to him, and he talks about that in the film. Other people want to learn more about those fabled, all-important shortcuts.

Since the ftlm was shot, Bonnell has found new ways to drive less, including a recent decision to simply get a hotel room on occasion when he's playing a few consecutive nights far afield from home.

"A lot of my colleagues are still running back and forth," he says. "I can't do that. When I'm performing in Monterey, I stay down in Monterey now. I get a hotel room. It's better for my sanity, and with the cost of gas what it is, I actually save money by staying in a hotel."

Skloot believes one benefit of the film is that it shows classical musicians not as the snobbish, dry, lifeless mannequins often depicted on screen, but as full-fledged human beings, all of them fascinating.

"They're not at all what you might think or expect," Skloot says. "They are real people, quirky, honest, interesting, and they take that stereotype of the stuffy classical musician and totally blow it out the window."

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© Copyright 2008, STRINGS