Review: Music rises from the garbage heap in the stirring documentary ‘Landfill Harmonic’


The irresistible story of the Recycled Orchestra has been told many times, on “60 Minutes” and in news reports around the world — its basics, anyway: On the impoverished edges of a landfill near Paraguay’s capital, a group of kids have been taught to play violins, cellos, flutes and drums, all crafted from garbage.

The documentary “Landfill Harmonic” is a welcome look behind the inspirational headlines and their occasionally loose grasp of detail. Case in point: It’s not the musicians who turn oil cans into cellos and X-rays into drumheads, but an amiable genius named Nicolas “Colá” Gomez, whose screen time in the film is one of its chief delights.

Though it sometimes loses its melodic flow, the doc (directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, with co-direction by Juliana Penaranda-Loftus) is a testament to spirited determination. The filmmakers offer intimate glimpses of life in Cateura, where many residents make their living as gancheros, sorting out the landfill’s reusable stuff from the mountains of trash.


By comparison, the orchestra’s progress from its raggedy first performances through stage time with thrash metal heavies Megadeth is depicted in disjointed sections, skimming the surface rather than zeroing in on memorable incidents.

Not just skimmed over but ignored is the matter of the group’s financial survival, no small detail in a town beset by poverty and environmental degradation. Whether founder and conductor Favio Chávez has found deep-pocketed donors or is involved in constant fundraising efforts, the film offers no clue. But it leaves no doubt that Chávez’s visionary cause is one to celebrate.


‘Landfill Harmonic’

In Spanish and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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