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Friday, September 5, 1997

Movie about music and madness debuts at Toronto festival

By JOHN MCKAY
Canadian Press
 
TORONTO (CP) -- Deep in the dark, chilly ruins of a Victorian-age distillery, an already-bizarre sight has been made even more so by a movie crew.
 
Surrounded by crumbling brick walls and rusted machinery, avant-garde Toronto director Clement Virgo is putting his cast and crew through the paces for a scene from The Planet of Junior Brown.
 
The $2.7-million dollar production is destined for a pre-Christmas broadcast on CBC but on this day in late winter there was already buzz that the production was good enough for the Toronto International Film Festival. And indeed, that's come to pass now that the festival is here.
 
"There are some very magical, surreal elements in the film," Virgo explained during a shooting break. "And it's also about a street kid, so there's some straight-ahead dramatic realism, too."
 
The Planet of Junior Brown is based on a Virginia Hamilton's strange 1970s novel about disaffected black kids living on the streets of New York. Virgo's script has transplanted the experience to latter-day multicultural Toronto but the basic elements remain.
 
"What's great about a good story is you can translate it into any culture or nationality," said Virgo. "I think the human condition is consistent towards, and I think it transcends race and gender."
 
Junior Brown is a shy, overweight black kid who happens to be a musical prodigy. He can do Chopin like nobody's business -- that is, if his single mom would let him. Junior must practise in silence on a dead keyboard and gazes longingly at a baby grand in the neighborhood music store window.
 
At home, his irritable mom has cut all the wires on their piano. In the film's opening scene, the hammers thump thump away while Junior plays, hearing the music only in his mind.
 
That's on the surface.
 
The trippy part comes when Junior and his street-wise pal Buddy Clark (Rainbow Francks) visit their eccentric janitor pal in the high-school basement.
 
There Mr. Pool (Homicide's Clark Johnson), has fostered Junior's fantasy world by erecting in the refuge a magical contrivance, a miniature motorized solar system with colored lights, ratchets and wheels that go round and round.
 
But this solar system has a tenth planet, a brown orb with a crown of thorns that turns in the opposite direction -- the highly metaphorical planet of Junior Brown.
 
Junior and Buddy also hang with an entire community of homeless kids who live in Dickensian abandoned ruins they call planets and who keep their own solar system from flying apart by behaving as family.
 
The relationship between the naive, schizophrenic Junior and the tough but decent Buddy has been likened to those of the lead characters in Midnight Cowboy, Of Mice and Men or even Rain Man.
 
"You see Buddy this strong character taking care of Junior, this weaker character," said Martin Villafana, the remarkable young actor who plays Junior Brown. "But then the roles switch."
 
Villafana does play the piano and for the film's finale must perform Prelude No. 4, Opus 28 from Chopin.
 
Clark Johnson, bald and bespectacled for his role, says he jumped at the chance to work for Virgo.
 
"Clement has a really interesting perspective on things. He always has these out-there visions. The last time I worked with him, on Rude, I didn't know what the hell was going on."
 


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