Sax Appeal: Cleveland's Favorite Street Musician Gets His Big-Screen Debut 

Many Clevelanders know the "Sax Man" as a downtown mainstay. But few people in town know more about him than that. A group of local filmmakers hopes to change that with a feature-length documentary due out next year. We talked wtih director Joe Siebert about Maurice Reedus Jr. — the sax man's real name — for details on how the film evolved and the challenges of getting it out there.

How did you first hear about Maurice, the Sax Man?

He first popped up because my friend John Pope, who's the cinematographer for the film, went to a Dredg concert several years ago and the band I guess had a sax player who was ill or couldn't make the show. They had a part in one of their songs that needed a solo so they decided why not invite the sax guy from outside on the streets to come up and play? They brought him on stage and Maurice played and John was just really taken by the character that was up on stage — the guy who just came up off the street and started wailing — so he approached him afterwards and said, "Hey, I'm a local filmmaker and I just was really intrigued by what you just did and you seem like an interesting guy, would you be interested in my friends and I doing a documentary on you?" He said yeah, and that's where it all got started. The first time I met Maurice was at a pizza shop in March 2010, for an actual introduction and to sit down and talk with him about his life story.

What is it about him that led you to want to make a full length feature on him?

First, we realized his past had a lot more richness to it than you would guess by just passing him on the street: his father was a Grammy award-winning saxophone player who played with the Robert Lockwood Jr. All Stars, and Maurice, himself, was a member of the Motown band Sly, Slick & Wicked who played together in the 70s. He had his time in the limelight where he really could have been a big deal in that world. The second thing, story-wise, was there was a time we came to a realization that there's no small crowd of people you can pass in Cleveland that there won't at least be one person who knows "the sax man," and they always say the same thing: that he's been playing out here for years, when I was a kid I remember him outside the ballgames, he's just a fixture in the city; there's a kind of love and endearment the city seems to have due to him being out there for the past 20 years. It's not just a story about a guy who had a history and looks interesting on the street, there's actually a heart to it, and that's what really set it off for us that there's a lot more here for us to tell than kind of just a goofy profile piece. The third component is he's just a genuine individual, he an open book, he's transparent, he's out there because he loves playing for people, he loves his saxophone — it's his life — he's not out there just putting on a show.

So where are you now with the movie?

Right now, we have our final cut locked and we're working on post-production to finish as far as coloring and sound. Also, we're doing a little bit of extra fundraising to get some money for music licenses. One of the tricky things with this particular project is by nature of what he does, he's out playing other people's songs on his sax, and the climax of the film is this concert where he's playing other people's songs on stage, so it's just unavoidable as an added expense for what we're doing. We're simultaneously trying to get the final polished and trying to get the licenses and rights all lined up and we're starting to get our festival submissions right now. We're hoping for it to come out at Sundance or some other big festival some time in early 2014.

The trailer you put up has a Searching for Sugar Man kind of vibe to it — discovering the wild background of a musician and then putting on a concert. What kind of docs are you into?

I'm one of those guys who watches those social, political, cultural issue documentaries. I actually started making myself watch more narrative documentaries because of taking this project on. Some of the ones that stood out as what we want to aspire to as far as telling somebody's story: Man on Wire was phenomenal. Exit through the Gift Shop was another one.

So how many hours of footage did you have to edit down from?

Hours-wise, I don't know, but I do know that we have six or seven terabytes of footage over the past year and a half. It was one of the most harrowing tasks of all just sitting down with it. Fortunately there had been quite a lot of time spent of the front end developing the story. It was an interesting process, because it was a hybrid of a true documentary. We knew where we wanted to take this story and where we wanted it to end up, so there was kind of a structure already in place that when we went out and shot we knew what we were looking to get. But at the same time, you just don't know what's going to happen when you're out there shooting, so stuff pops up that ends up in the film that you never planned on, but you have to roll with it. There's a balance of following the structure you set on the front end but then being adaptable enough to let it develop organically as you're putting it together and realizing something that you may never even intended on making it in actually speaks to what you're trying to say better than anything else you could have planned.

How much money are you trying to raise?

That's a difficult question at the moment. We're actually working on trying to get the pricing from the different publishers [for the music licenses] and such. We've kind of put the ballpark around $35,000 to $50,000 hoping that it covers that, but you never know. At the end of the concert, Maurice spontaneously breaks into a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that was just a magical moment that captivated everybody and we end the film with that because it's so powerful. That's something that wasn't planned, but it's in there and god knows how much a license for that would cost. We're doing the best we can to raise as much as we can to make sure we don't have to compromise on moments like that.

Once everything is done, give me a pitch for why people should come see it.

For the Cleveland audience, people should come see it because what this film does is put Cleveland in a framework that really highlights the importance of community and togetherness in our particular city; he's kind of the symbol of that in this film, for not giving up when you're down and keeping up with your passion. For a city like Cleveland that has seen its share of hard times, I think he's a good metaphor for how the city keeps moving forward despite the circumstances. Beyond Cleveland, it has a universal human message that true success isn't necessarily making the millions of dollars and having your name known, it's about finding a way to really take your deepest passions and meet the world around you to make the difference you can.

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