AIFF 2013: Jake Shimabukuro – Life On Four Strings

“When I’m on stage, all I want to do is connect with people…” narrates Jake Shimabukuro over video of him performing for senior citizens in Sedai, Japan. It’s a common sentiment expressed by musicians, but perhaps it rings more true during the closing minutes of the Ashland Independent Film Festival. The documentary about the Hawaiian-born ukulele virtuoso, titled Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, is having its final screening of the weekend, having won the Rogue Creamery Audience Award for Best Documentary the night before.

Life on Four Strings, directed by Tadashi Nakamura, looks at Shimabukuro’s upbringing in Honolulu, learning ukulele from his mother starting at the age of four. Following his parents’ divorce, Shimabukuro escaped into the ukulele, eventually forming the contemporary Hawaiian music group “Pure Heart”. When he struck out on his own, Shimabukuro began experimenting with various effects and distortion pedals to create a sound that few would associate with the ukulele. After some time in that style, he decided that all manipulations of sound would be done with his hands.

Over the film’s 56 minutes, we are treated to an intimate and in-depth look into Jake’s life and career with performance videos, interviews with his family and tour manager, as well as a beautiful montage of video from his wedding.

Watching how Shimabukuro’s playing style morphed and evolved through the years was, while absolutely fascinating, came second to watching Shimabukuro as a person. The scenes of him playing for elementary children were maybe the best of the movie, watching that connection happen at a young age.

However, that is not to discredit the music. I found myself during the film wanting to buy his complete discography. The sounds that he creates with his ukulele, at any point in his career, are unlike anything that I’ve ever heard from the instrument. Shimabukuro points to the fact that, outside of Hawaii, most people don’t take the ukulele seriously as an instrument. After this film, I’m no longer one of those people.

The relatively short run time is used efficiently. You don’t feel cheated, but it does a great job pulling you in, making you want more. As I exited the theater, I heard numerous attendees lamenting that they wanted more.

While they may have to wait a little, Rogue Valley audiences will indeed get more Jake Shimabukuro. He will be performing at this year’s Britt Festival on Sept. 14th.

“I’m not a professional, so don’t expect anything too great,” a young Shimabukuro pleads before an archived performance at the film’s close. The beautiful irony of that statement was not lost on the audience.

Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings will air on PBS May 10 at 9 p.m. For more information about the film and future screenings, click here and visit for news, music and tour dates.

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